Children don’t belong in adult jails.

House Bill 3214, which was approved by a House committee last week, would make juvenile detention centers the default place for holding children under age 17 and accused of crimes.

The proposal, offered by Rep. Mark Lawson, was the result of an Oklahoma Commission on Children and Youth task force that studied the issue. It has the endorsement of the state sheriffs association, Lawson said.

Children who are at least 15 and who are charged with first-degree murder could only be held in adult jails after a hearing finds that such placement is in the interest of justice. HB 3214 would require that a judge consider the child’s age, maturity and history and the nature of the offense. Metropolitan area courts would be required to reconsider juvenile placement in an adult jail every 30 days; rural courts would need to reconsider every 45 days.

Under the proposal, juveniles who are convicted of adult crimes could be held in adult jails until they are transported to prison.

Aside from those commonsense provisions, the interest of justice is best served by keeping children who have been accused, but not convicted, in safe, secure facilities that are separate from adult prisoners. Young prisoners are physically and emotionally different from adult prisoners. Holding them together risks violations of federal rules, makes juvenile rehabilitation less likely and can lead to jailhouse abuse or death.

Sixteen regional Office of Juvenile Affairs-funded facilities provide adequate space for holding juvenile prisoners. Court transportation to and from those facilities will be covered by OJA, Lawson said.

We aren’t so naive as to assume that people under the age of 18 aren’t capable of horrifying crimes, but Lawson’s bill is right. Unless there is a compelling reason to do otherwise, the state should hold juvenile prisoners in safe, secure facilities, apart from adults.

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