All Oklahoma children deserve a fair and equal juvenile justice system

Our Juvenile Justice system is failing youth of color. Today’s youth are committing fewer crimes and fewer youth are being arrested, but there are still differences in how they are treated based on their race and where they live. Open Justice Oklahoma’s recent report describes the continuing unevenness within our juvenile justice system. The justice system will continue to be unfair to people of color unless lawmakers take deliberate steps to fix it. Closing the gap in these disparities for youth is necessary for long-term justice reform in our state.


Racial and local disparities persist in Oklahoma’s juvenile justice system

There are differences in how the justice system treats people based on the color of their skin. This happens with youth as well as adults. Black and brown youth commit crimes at the same rate as white youth but are punished more severely, as detailed in the report. Black youth are three times more likely to be arrested and six times more likely to be incarcerated. Native American youth who are arrested are two and a half times more likely to be incarcerated than white youth.  

Similarly, there are major differences in how often juveniles are arrested between counties, even when the people who live there share similar demographics. Arrest rates for juveniles are six times higher in Pottawatomie County than in bordering Seminole County. The most staggering discrepancy in arrest rates is for Kay County, which has juvenile arrest rates five times the state average.

These disparities reflect and exacerbate disparities in other areas

It is impossible to fully comprehend the disparities Oklahomans of color face without acknowledging our state’s tumultuous history. From forced resettlement of Native Americans to the Greenwood race massacre,  the effects of our past can still be seen today. Oklahomans of color generally make less, have unequal access to quality education and medical care, and are more likely to live in communities that lack resources. Current systems perpetuate harmful outcomes for youth of color, increasing the chance that youth of color will become justice-involved.  

  • Black youth in Oklahoma are nearly six times more likely and Native American youth are two times as likely to live in concentrated poverty — neighborhoods where 30 percent or more of the population lives below the federal poverty line — compared to white youth.
  • Black students in Oklahoma are more than four times as likely to have a school-related arrest and six times as likely to be expelled compared to white students. While rates school related arrest for Native American youth are comparable to their white counterparts, the consequences for them are more severe given their likelihood of incarceration once arrested.  
  • Communities of color face additional stress from experiencing racial bias. Buildup of stress can have long lasting physical and mental effects
  • One in every 15 Black men in Oklahoma are incarcerated. And although Native Americans make up only 9 percent of our population, Native American women account for 12 percent of the Oklahoma’s female prison population.

Ripple effects of these disparities traumatize our youth, rip apart families, and devastate communities. Disparities in arrest rates for youth of color are particularly high within rural communities. And just as in the adult system, people working within the juvenile justice system hold a great amount of decision-making power. Kay County’s staggering juvenile arrest rates, five times the state average, highlight the vast difference between counties. Kay County has been previously highlighted for stark differences in adult felony filings, suggesting an overall punitive approach to justice.

We are failing Oklahoma children if we do not address disparities in our juvenile justice system

Causes of racial and local disparities within the Oklahoma’s juvenile justice system are historical, complex, and cannot be solved overnight. But if we fail to acknowledge our faults and begin to make progress towards solutions we are failing our children and our state. When people are treated differently based on their race or geography, we all suffer. The economic and emotional costs of incarceration for families within our state is crippling, even more so for families of color. As uncomfortable as it may be for some, progress cannot be made without data-driven conversations about race. In order to reduce racial disparity in juvenile justice all youth serving agencies need to incorporate a racial equity lens into every aspect of their work. Only then can progress be made towards a system that is truly just for all Oklahomans.  


Ashley Harvey joined OK Policy as the justice data analyst for Open Justice Oklahoma in September 2018. A native Oklahoman, she received her B.S. and M.S. from Oklahoma State University-Tulsa in Human Development and Family Science. She previously worked as a research assistant for OSU’s Center for Family Resilience evaluating various community and grant funded projects. As an Albert Schweitzer Fellow, she developed and implemented a family strengthening initiative within Tulsa County Juvenile Detention Center. Ashley is an alumna of OK Policy’s 2017 Summer Policy Institute. She is currently pursuing a Ph.D. from OSU, where her research interests include family and community impacts of the justice system.

One thought on “All Oklahoma children deserve a fair and equal juvenile justice system

  1. Hello! Thank you for this article. My 13 year old black son was arrested at Jenks Middle school Tues April 20th. He was assigned seating near two weathly white male students. One of those males said “i want to shoot the school” and no one reacted. The second male dared my son to say it. He did and is now facing charges. Only with that teacher has he had repetitive problems. Do you know any lawers that I may get legal conciliation from?

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