Two state agencies are looking at potential changes in Oklahoma’s system for pretrial detention of juveniles charged with criminal offenses.
Juveniles who are charged as delinquents are required to be held in a juvenile detention facility contracted for by the Office of Juvenile Affairs (OJA) and certain counties pending trial and disposition of their cases. The detention facilities are operated either by a juvenile bureau (in the case of Oklahoma, Tulsa, Comanche, and Canadian counties) or by private, non-profit agencies.
On February 4, 2019, 16-year old John Leroy Daniel Applegate was arrested by Choctaw police and was being held in the Oklahoma County jail on charges of first-degree rape, rape by instrumentation, assault with a dangerous weapon, obstructing an officer, and resisting arrest. Details of the rape allegations have not been published. The dangerous weapon was a BB gun that Applegate pulled from his bedside drawer and attempted to aim at officers when they came to his home to arrest him, which likely gave rise to the assault and resisting charges.
Oklahoma law allows juveniles charged either as youthful offenders – as was the case with Applegate – or as adults to be held in county jails separate from adult prisoners. Sometimes because of the separation requirements, confinement of juveniles in jail becomes tantamount to solitary confinement. Applegate died in the Oklahoma County jail on May 1 after having tried to commit suicide in April. Oklahoma County asked the Oklahoma Commission on Children and Youth (OCCY), whose duty it is to investigate and report on cases of serious child abuse or death when a child is in state custody, to investigate Applegate’s death.
Last Monday, OCCY presented its report to the Oklahoma County Jail Trust. In its report, OCCY recommended legislation for next session providing that juvenile detention facilities, not jails, would be the default placement for juveniles regardless of whether they are charged as juveniles, youthful offenders, or adults. Interestingly, on Wednesday the OJA board discussed a plan to update the 11-year-old state plan for juvenile detention facilities to more efficiently determine the number and placement of facilities throughout the state. The plan is to be voted on in October. In addition to the actions of OJA and OCCY, Congress has passed a new law, in 2018, strengthening the prohibition against pretrial confinement of juveniles in adult jail facilities except under certain circumstances.
These three recent actions together – change in federal law, the investigation and recommendations for change by OCCY, and OJA’s desire to update the state detention plan – may create an opportunity for progress in the area of pretrial treatment of juvenile offenders. It may be too early for OJA to calculate with certainty how changes in pretrial detention practices might affect the juvenile detention population. But both OJA and OCCY surely will have a role in helping the Legislature determine the best way forward to protect both the public and the youth in pretrial state custody, something that has been a knotty policy issue for decades. Interested legislators will no doubt be considering the call for change and the new federal requirements.