Girls can spend time reading, engaging in limited daily outdoor activity and school at the Office of Juvenile Affairs detention center in Norman.  Steve Sisney/ The Oklahoman file

Good news has emerged among the thick weight of dire reports about Oklahoma’s incarceration rates. This bit of positivity shows that philosophical and program changes for Oklahoma’s youth are paying off.

Since 1990, violent felonies fell by 70% and property felonies by 86% among Oklahoma youth of all races, according to an analysis by Open Justice Oklahoma. Drug and other offenses also declined substantially.

For children aged 13 or younger, arrest rates fell by 92%.

The huge swing for Oklahoma youth occurred at a time when the adult population was being packed into prisons, leading to a crisis in overcrowding, financial burden and other social costs.

Oklahoma has spent more than three decades as No. 1 in the incarceration rate of women and sat firmly within the top five in male rates.

“For all the bad news we get about the Oklahoma justice system, it’s nice to have a bright spot once in a while to show us change is possible,” said Ryan Gentzler, director of Open Justice Oklahoma. “We can turn around a big ship in the middle of an ocean. It takes a long time, but we can do it.”

Much about criminal justice reform has focused on the adult prisons because those are where the emergencies lie. But trouble usually starts in the adolescent years.

“We have the biggest incarceration rate in the world, and that doesn’t seem likely to change for a long time,” Gentzler said. “But if we continue to see progress on the juvenile front, it will help provide some relief in the adult system.”

Justin Jones spent more than 30 years in adult corrections before starting his job as the director of the Tulsa County Juvenile Bureau in 2015. He said the adult prison reform isn’t keeping pace with the same type of progress in the juvenile system.

When he was at the Oklahoma Department of Corrections, only 16% of adults entering prison had a juvenile adjudication.

Jones points to longer sentencing in adults, such as the increased use of life without parole and crimes requiring inmates serve 85% of their time before parole is considered.

“As long as Oklahoma continues to have a large number of 85% crimes combined with longer overall sentencing lengths of many other crimes, this adds to a stacking effect,” Jones said.

Tulsa County has been a leader in changing juvenile adjudications. The Tulsa Area Community Intervention Center screens all youth eligible for detention or returning to parents and guardians with a later appearance date. The juvenile bureau also operates the Phoenix Rising alternative school with Tulsa Public Schools.

These services reflect a change of thinking. Programs are developed based on research of adolescent brain development and data from evidence-based assessments.

“This coupled with a philosophical shift are certainly significant factors,” Jones said. “Family engagement, treatment as opposed to punishment, targeting the highest risk youth have also contributed.”

Like any analysis, the details provide the most enlightening information.

While the overall numbers have come down, disparities remain between racial groups and from county to county.

Black youth show the largest gap with arrest rates for the past 30 years being three to five times higher compared to other races. In 2018, a black teenager was 3.5 times more likely to be arrested for a criminal offense and 6.4 times more likely to be incarcerated.

Native American youth show the second-highest disparity. White, non-Hispanic youth have the second highest arrest rate but lowest level of incarceration.

These differences are most concerning when looking at the growing trend of racial diversity in Oklahoma.

In 1990, 25% of Oklahoma youth (age 10-17) were classified as a person of color: black, Hispanic, Asian or Native American. Today, the youth population is 70,000 bigger with nonwhite youth representing 43% of the total.

The reason for these disparities is not that children of certain races commit more crimes. Answers are in the neighborhoods where children are raised and in systems that serve kids.

Are they in areas with aggressive law enforcement or entering courts with few to no alternatives? Are mental health programs available? Do the schools have strict zero-tolerance policies? What types of supports can be obtained by parents who need help?

“The same sorts of arguments and controversies are in the juvenile system as in the adult system,” Gentzler said. “If you look at school suspensions, at early ages black students are more likely to be suspended, expelled or punished. It has to do with implicit or institutional bias. As a society, we perceive similar behaviors among people differently based on race. That is institutional in nature.

“The way things have played out, at the very early ages, we tend to hold minority children to a higher standard or tend to give less room to act out. And once caught up in the system, it is easier to be dragged down into it.

“Oklahoma’s juvenile affairs has worked hard to change that, and that shows in the overall numbers. OJA has shifted toward finding more alternatives to incarceration for kids who need extra support.”

Just as troubling are some of the county results.

Kay County is the unexplained outlier with juvenile arrests at five times the pace of the state’s average. It, by far, has the highest juvenile arrest rate of any county.

Last year, Kay County arrested 11.3% of its total youth population, compared to 2.2% of juvenile populations in other counties.

The county is home to the Marland Children’s Home in Ponca City that houses disadvantaged and abused teenagers. The report states police may respond to calls there but that doesn’t explain the discrepancy.

Carter County came in next, followed by Pottawatomie County, which has one of the state’s 18 juvenile detention facilities.

The gaps don’t make sense when considering nearby counties (such as Stephens and Seminole) with similar demographics have much lower juvenile arrest rates, as the report points out.

Tulsa and Oklahoma counties have state juvenile detention centers and more youth group homes. Other counties boast similar youth services. So that doesn’t explain the discrepancies.

The report found that, unlike other states, Oklahoma has no relationship between county youth poverty and arrests.

The reasons for why these rural areas lock up more kids is hard to understand.

Interestingly, the county findings look similar to the changes in adult incarceration. For decades, Tulsa and Oklahoma counties combined led the number of intakes into prisons.

That flipped in recent years. Now, the two largest metropolitan counties account for 40% of adult prison intakes while rural counties account for 60%.

Jones suggests the racial and geographic disparities include a lack of resources in communities such as health insurance needs or improved education. Police culture and protocols are factors.

“This is magnified if priorities do not coincide with community involvement, intervention and prevention,” Jones said.

Looking at just the past 20 years, youth incarcerations have declined 64%, saving about $435 million in detention costs since 2001, the report found.

Gentzler said the total costs to the entire system is hard to calculate but would be considerably higher.

“The top-line number is very encouraging that arrests of juveniles are way down,” Gentzler said. “We are less punitive about the responses to status crimes like curfews, driving under age or minors in possession of alcohol. Those are crimes due to age.

“We do need to stress reducing racial disparities … There are still institutional biases. We have to be vigilant about that because if those biases continue, it will compound and hold back our state.”

The report doesn’t indicate the problem is solved. It’s an evolution in knowing how to help youth turn their lives around and make better decisions.

That means expanding programs that work but also continuing to rely on data and science. Jones said Oklahoma needs to consider — like other states have adopted — increasing the age a person can be considered a juvenile.

“This would assist in aligning cognitive development with an age when one is fully developed,” Jones said. “Government needs to have an improved understanding that providing public safety is not only policing but involves prevention. What better way to reduce future victimization than investing in evidenced-based resources for at-risk youth?”


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Ginnie Graham



Twitter: @GinnieGraham