A new approach towards juvenile justice

Note: The subject involved in this story is a juvenile. To protect his identity, the District Attorney’s Office is using an alias.

This week, Isaac found himself being escorted into a Multnomah County courtroom.

It was only the third time the 15-year-old boy had been inside a courtroom in his entire life.

With the summer sun shining brightly into the courtroom, a sheriff deputy removed the handcuffs from Isaac.

He was nervous.

A family member sat in the first row of the courtroom’s public seating area.

She was nervous.

“My name is Nan Waller. I’m the judge who’s going to hear all of your cases today,” Judge Waller said to Isaac, who seemed frozen.

There was a reason Isaac was sitting in an adult courtroom in downtown instead of being at the county’s Juvenile Justice Complex.

Isaac had been charged as an adult under Ballot Measure 11 – meaning if he was convicted at trial, he could face years in custody.

In February, a grand jury returned a true bill against Isaac. He was charged with four counts of assault in the third degree, three counts each of robbery in the second degree and two counts of riot.

On January 14, a group of teenagers, including Isaac, walked into a local market in downtown Portland and started grabbing items off the shelf. They left without paying. An employee tried to stop the group, but he was attacked by the teens.

The employee was hit numerous times in the face. A bystander tried to stop the group’s unrelenting attack. That bystander was eventually assaulted.

Weeks later, Isaac was with some friends when a tip jar was stolen from a local food cart at the intersection of Southwest 3rd and Southwest Washington. An employee jumped the counter to chase the thief. Eventually, the man caught up with the suspect and a struggle ensued. Isaac jumped in. He repeatedly kicked and punched the employee. The employee’s wife, who was also working at the food cart, was kicked in the mouth.

“These weren’t minor assaults,” said Multnomah County Deputy District Attorney Eric Zimmerman, who prosecuted this case. “This boy and his friends, without provocation, violently attacked members of our community and caused substantial physical injuries. In accord with Oregon law, due to the nature of these crimes, we charged this case pursuant to Ballot Measure 11.”

DDA Zimmerman is part of a unit in the DA’s Office that prosecutes burglary, vehicular, robbery and gang crimes.

As the case progressed, Zimmerman was provided information from Isaac’s criminal defense attorney that portrayed a much different person than the one listed on the nine count indictment.

“All of this criminal activity was committed in the span of 45 days, which tells me that there’s a lot of potential in Isaac” Zimmerman said in court. “There are a lot of people who love Isaac and who spoke very highly of him.”

The DA’s Office reviewed mitigating information to include psychological evaluations, school and summer camp records and determined that Isaac would be a good candidate for a relatively new office policy that allows qualified juveniles who have been charged with certain “Tier II” Measure 11 crimes, specifically robbery in the second degree, assault in the second degree, or kidnapping in the second degree, to resolve their cases in juvenile court.

In June 2016, District Attorney Rod Underhill implemented the Juvenile Justice Reinvestment Program, a case-by-case policy aimed to safely reduce the number of young people (ages 15-17) prosecuted under Oregon’s Ballot Measure 11.

Measure 11 was approved by voters in 1994. It established mandatory minimum sentencing for certain serious crimes. The law also applies to juvenile offenders if convicted in adult court.

“When you read his school records, his teachers loved having him in class and they talked about how hard he worked and how hopeful he was in class and how respectful and kind he was and not to just them, but to other students in the classroom,” Isaac’s criminal defense attorney said during court.

With the mitigating information, DDA Zimmerman approached his unit’s supervisor and eventually got the approval from DA Underhill to offer a plea agreement to Isaac that would allow accountability for his actions in January and February but would keep the conviction off his permanent record.

“I see a lot of potential in this young man and I hope this is a wakeup call and a learning lesson and he uses this to his advantage,” Zimmerman said in court. “He has been remorseful since day one.”

Consistent with the Oregon Constitution and the philosophy of the District Attorney’s Office, Zimmerman contacted the victims in this case and got their input about resolving their cases with a plea deal that would not result in an adult conviction for Isaac.

“The victims, all of them, were supportive of this resolution,” Zimmerman said.

Youth in the Juvenile Justice Reinvestment Program benefit tremendously from this vastly different program of rehabilitation and appropriate accountability to the victim(s). The results show that the JJRP program has substantially increased the percentage of youth sentenced to probation and substantially decreased the percentage sentenced to Oregon Youth Authority custody.

“I really have a lot of faith in (Isaac),” Zimmerman said in court. “I don’t usually say that about a lot of the people I deal with. But I can just tell…there’s a lot of people who care about him.”

Judge Waller agreed and signed the paperwork that would allow Isaac’s case to be resolved in Juvenile Court.

“You strike me as someone who doesn’t want to be seen, or see yourself, as someone who hurts people, takes things from other people and so Mr. Zimmerman saw that in you – that you are somebody who doesn’t have to be defined by this 45 days of really bad behavior – that you have potential to be someone who is loved and will be welcomed back into the community, who can do well, who can be a role model,” Judge Waller told Isaac.

She asked the boy what happened. His answers were pure.

He was hanging out with the wrong group of friends.

Judge Waller told Isaac about a young man who had appeared before her several years prior on serious offenses. He received an incarceration sentence that included probation. When he was let out, he struggled on probation and was continuously brought back before the judge on probation violations. Eventually, his name stopped appearing on the judge’s docket. She wondered what happened to him. Then, out of the blue, the young man showed up in court. He wasn’t in trouble. He wanted to update the judge on his progress. He was doing well and was staying out of trouble. Judge Waller asked the young man what changed and he said he had a new outlook on life.

“His motto for himself was ‘second thought first’ because he realized when he was with other young men and they would all get excited about doing something that would lead to a really bad decision where people got hurt, where bad things happened,” Judge Waller told Isaac. “That wasn’t who he wanted to be. And so he realized that if he could slow down and get to the second thought – rather than ‘Great! Let’s go do this!’ He’d get to the second thought first and say ‘that’s not who I want to be.’”

As the hearing began to finish, Judge Waller continued to encourage Isaac to stay committed to being a better person while at the Oregon Youth Authority. She encouraged him to update Zimmerman and herself on his progress and told him to become involved in activities he liked, such as sports.

The judge looked over at Zimmerman and told Isaac about the rugby teams Zimmerman coaches.

“It’s better to be on a rugby team playing it out on the field than hitting people you don’t know…when they haven’t done anything to you,” Waller said.

After the hearing concluded, the deputy walked over to grab some paperwork and prepared to put Isaac back in those handcuffs. The courtroom sat silent.

Zimmerman stood up, walked over to Isaac and gave the 15-year-old a handshake, a sign that everything will be okay.


Contact: Brent Weisberg, Communications Director

Phone: 503.988.6567

Email: Brent.Weisberg@nullmcda.us