Interim study on youth justice shows need for funding, cohesive systems for prevention and treatment services (Capitol Update)

Rep. Amanda Swope, D-Tulsa, who in her life outside the legislature is the Tribal Juvenile Justice Program Director for the Muscogee Nation, brought her passion for helping troubled youth with her when she was elected to the House of Representatives. She, along with Children, Youth and Family Services Committee Chairman John Talley, R-Stillwater, sponsored an interim study on the Oklahoma juvenile justice system last week.

Society’s treatment of children and youth who run afoul of the law has a rather sordid past. Before 1899, in the U.S. children older than seven who committed a crime were tried in adult court with the same rights and punishments as adults and were often incarcerated in adult jails and prisons. In the early 1900s, a reform movement caused passage of laws protecting children from punishment by adult courts. But, on the theory they were not being punished but instead were receiving treatment, juveniles were no longer entitled to due process of law before being found delinquent.

The modern era of juvenile justice began in 1967 with the In re Gault decision by the U.S. Supreme Court. Gault held that juveniles are entitled to due process of law under the 14th Amendment. In that case, 15-year-old Gerald Gault was found delinquent by the juvenile court judge in his chambers with no testimony by his accuser, no record made of the hearing, and no right to appeal. The allegation was making a lewd phone call and other minor misbehavior.

The lewd call under Arizona law was a misdemeanor for which an adult would have been subject to two months confinement and a fine of $5 to $50. The 15-year-old Gault was ordered confined in the state industrial school until the age of 21 “unless sooner discharged by due process of law.” The Supreme Court, after going through a long history of juvenile law and practice, said the following:

Ultimately, however, we confront the reality of that portion of the Juvenile Court process with which we deal in this case. A boy is charged with misconduct. The boy is committed to an institution where he may be restrained of liberty for years. It is of no constitutional consequence — and of limited practical meaning — that the institution to which he is committed is called an Industrial School. The fact of the matter is that, however euphemistic the title, a “receiving home” or an “industrial school” for juveniles is an institution of confinement in which the child is incarcerated for a greater or lesser time. His world becomes “a building with whitewashed walls, regimented routine and institutional hours…”instead of mother and father and sisters and brothers and friends and classmates, his world is peopled by guards, custodians, state employees, and “delinquents” confined with him for anything from waywardness to rape and homicide.

Modern juvenile justice in Oklahoma began with the Terry D. lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court on January 4, 1978. An article in National Center for Youth Law dated November 2, 1982, described the situation in Oklahoma’s juvenile institutions at the time:

In spring 1977, an attorney from Legal Aid of Western Oklahoma made an unannounced visit to one of the State’s secure juvenile institutions. What he found shocked him. Children were locked in solitary confinement cells for weeks, even months, on end. Some of the children “had been stripped to their underwear and given only a blanket.” They were, at times, denied access to the toilet. One 10-year-old child was sent to solitary confinement as punishment for running away. The attorney saw broken windows, exposed electrical wires, and leaking plumbing. “[T]he stench of human excrement and sweat pervaded the entire building[,]” he later told Congress.

In the fall of 1977, the attorney returned, this time with lawyers from NCYL. Subsequent investigations showed that incarcerated youth were routinely “hog-tied,” with their hands and feet shackled behind their backs and tied together with a strap or chain. Staff were drugging children without medical authorization. Experts called the educational program at one of the institutions “one of the worst educational systems” they had ever seen. Oklahoma’s own investigations substantiated reports of sexual relations between staff and youth, and of widespread instances of physical abuse.

Unlike almost every other state in the country, Oklahoma placed children from the dependency system, as well as those adjudicated delinquent, into its locked juvenile institutions. About half of the children in Oklahoma’s secure facilities were abused, neglected, or dependent “nonoffenders” or were children committed for “status offenses” such as truancy or running away from home.

In 1977 and 1978, I was an elected District Attorney in Oklahoma helping the court send young people to these institutions. It’s easy to see how well-meaning people in positions of authority, thinking they are doing the right thing can, when viewed objectively, be doing great harm. In the early 1980s, the Terry D lawsuit, along with national publicity about Oklahoma’s institutions, led to massive change in Oklahoma’s juvenile justice system. 

As part of these changes, in 1982, House Bill 1468 was signed into law and, along with many other changes, the Oklahoma Commission on Children and Youth (OCCY) was created to bring accountability and oversight into the child and youth service systems of Oklahoma. Programs within OCCY include the Oklahoma Child Death Review Boards, the Post Adjudication Review Boards, Freestanding Multidisciplinary Teams, the Office of Planning and Coordination, and the Office of Juvenile System Oversight. I was privileged to help write HB 1468.

Later, in reaction to outrage over an apparent cyclical increase in juvenile crime and high-profile violent crimes committed by juveniles, the legislature responded in 1994 with passage of HB 2640, the Juvenile Reform Act. That act created the Office of Juvenile Affairs along with the Youthful Offender Act to provide justice for serious and habitual juvenile offenders that increased the use of adult court for categories of juvenile offenders.

Rep. Swope’s interim study was an effort, in three hours, to look at Oklahoma’s juvenile justice system as it is today. The committee heard about a mental health program called Functional Family Therapy, which OJA administers in multiple counties as a post-sentencing intervention, and for which the Oklahoma Appleseed Center for Law and Justice has administered a pilot project for at-risk youth. But the money will soon run out.

It heard from a Tulsa juvenile court judge who described the court process and identified challenges she faces, most notably lack of mental health and substance use treatment. It heard from an Oklahoma City woman who was guardian for her niece who was in juvenile court as she described the successes and failures of the system. And it heard from Youth Services Agencies who described community-based services provided throughout the state. 

A fair summary of what the committee learned was that many dedicated and talented people are working in an underfunded system that makes promises it often cannot keep because of huge gaps in the availability of trained providers and in services. Juveniles are sometimes ordered into treatment they never receive, or that is borderline appropriate, and parents give up in frustration on the system and their kids. 

The overarching theme was a lack of funding for prevention and treatment and lack of a coherent system that dependably provides vital services everywhere they are needed. As our treatment of troubled kids through the years has proven more than once: Good intentions don’t always provide good results. Today’s youth face a troubled world. Thanks to Rep. Swope and Rep. Talley for working to demonstrate and meet their needs.


Steve Lewis served as Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives from 1989-1990. He currently practices law in Tulsa and represents clients at the Capitol.

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