It’s time to re-examine the Youthful Offender Act (Capitol Update)

The Office of Juvenile Affairs leadership has announced plans to push through amendments to Youthful Offender Act (YOA) in the upcoming session. The YOA, originally passed in 1994, is the product of a time of immense public dissatisfaction of juvenile crime. Before the YOA, persons under the age of 18 were initially charged in juvenile court regardless of the seriousness of their offense. The district attorney could move to have the offender “certified” to stand trial as an adult. Based on certain constitutional standards, including the seriousness of the offense and the juvenile’s amenability to rehabilitation, the court could either leave the case in juvenile court or certify the juvenile to stand trial as an adult.

A big cause of public dissatisfaction was the privacy of juvenile proceedings. The name of the offender, the charges, and the certification hearings were confidential, held behind closed doors. In keeping with the rehabilitative purpose of juvenile court, the juvenile could get treatment and, if he straightened out his life, he would live without the stigma of the juvenile offense. But in high profile cases, the public would read or hear of a serious, often violent crime committed by a juvenile. From then on, unless the juvenile was certified to stand trial as an adult, the process was secret. This left the impression that there was no accountability for juvenile crime and led to passage of the YOA.

The YOA deals with three kinds of crimes: Murder, other violent crimes, and other types of felonies. It provides that a 13- or 14-year-old who commits first degree murder may be treated as either an adult or a young offender. A 15-, 16- or 17-year-old who commits first-degree murder must be treated as an adult. For the other crimes listed, a procedure is provided for juveniles to be treated as an adult, a youthful offender, or a juvenile. Persons convicted as young offenders begin their sentence in a juvenile facility. When the defendants reach adulthood, the court decides whether they appear to have been rehabilitated. They will be either released or required to serve their sentence in adult prison.

The Youthful Offender Act is complicated, overly broad in some respects, and needs improvement. I hope the Office of Juvenile Affairs plans a complete overhaul of the statute. A few years ago, the legislature got close to major changes. But to deal successfully with the older-juvenile to young-adult population, there really needs to be a separate institution for young adults, separate from the other prison population. At that time, there was no money to consider a better way for this population. With criminal justice reform at the forefront, it would be a good time for Office of Juvenile Affairs to lend its expertise to this age group.


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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