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According to a new report from the Oklahoma Policy Institute, issues with Oklahoma’s youth justice system mirror problems seen in its adult justice system.
Released on Monday, March 28, the report finds that children of color are overrepresented and the state’s overreliance on fines and fees to fund core operations damages families and communities.
Better Tomorrows: A Landscape Analysis of Oklahoma’s Youth Justice System and Suggested Reforms reviews the historical context for Oklahoma’s youth justice system. It examines contemporary processes and actors within the system, and recommends a series of reforms that can help achieve better outcomes for justice-involved children and their families.
“Our research showed a clear need for Oklahoma to make purposeful investments both of attention and resources so our state can rehabilitate children who become involved in the justice system and help guide towards becoming productive members of our communities,” said OK Policy Executive Director Ahniwake Rose.
OK Policy report dives into the history of state’s juvenile justice system
For this report, OK Policy staff gathered information during listening sessions and informal interviews with more than 60 people, including justice-involved children, their families, and representatives from youth-serving organizations statewide. The report also examined state and federal data, the state’s system of youth-serving agencies, and current and historic laws.
To better understand the current context for the state’s youth justice system, the report looks at Oklahoma’s unique and tumultuous history that includes the Indian Removal Act, the Tulsa Race Massacre, and other events that created generational trauma. Oklahoma families today find themselves shouldering disproportionately large economic, social, and emotional burdens that are compounded by the state’s ongoing disinvestment in public services and programs.
The report also notes that protections within the youth justice system have largely been forced by litigation, such as the Terry D. lawsuit and the closing of the L.E. Rader Juvenile Detention Center. Efforts to bring about reform have frequently been hamstrung by Oklahoma’s structural budget deficit.
Various youth-serving agencies and organizations have responsibilities for rehabilitating and protecting youth who become involved in the justice system. The report outlines the various paths a young person can take through the system, as well as examines data that shows Oklahoma children of color are over-represented throughout.
Oklahoma Policy Institute found Black teens more than six times more likely to face incarceration
Data from the report show that Black youth remain about twice as likely to be arrested for a drug offense and three times more likely to be arrested in comparison to white youth. When it comes to incarceration, Black youth are 6.4 times more likely to be incarcerated than white youth. Similarly, American Indian youth who are arrested are much more likely to be incarcerated than other races.
Additionally, the report found large differences in the youth referrals throughout the state when looking at youth referrals to the justice system for July 2018 to July 2019. Per capita referrals range from zero in Grant County to almost 90 referrals per 1,000 county residents in Comanche County. Rounding out the top five counties for youth referrals during that period were Pontotoc, Woodward, Ottawa, and Kay counties.
A wide array of Oklahoma organizations are responsible for ensuring the health and well-being for justice-involved children, and the shortcomings of Oklahoma’s youth justice system do not rest with any organization or individual, the authors note.
More reforms needed
The report from Oklahoma Policy Institute recognizes that the state’s youth-serving agencies are staffed by passionate, hardworking people committed to the well-being of the children in their care. However, every actor in the youth justice system must grapple with the state’s present circumstances, while also recognizing the decisions made by their predecessors in response to their contemporary circumstances.
“OK Policy chose to dive deeply into youth justice issues to help everyday Oklahomans better understand a complex system and create a public conversation about how our state can better provide essential services,” said OK Policy’s Policy Director Carly Putnam. “Every Oklahoman has a responsibility for the health and welfare of young people in our state.”
While Oklahoma continues to make gradual progress on youth justice issues in recent years, the Better Tomorrows report shows the state’s current youth justice system and its involved agencies still have room for growth to better serve our children and families.
According to the report, meaningful, sustained investments in Oklahoma’s children are needed to ensure their success into adolescence and adulthood. Further, focused work is needed to better protect children in the youth justice system, from eliminating youth fees and fines to ensuring quality counsel for youth.