Justice reinvestment offers a model to support vulnerable Oklahoma youth

Open Justice Oklahoma’s newest report details Oklahoma’s massive, decades-long declines in juvenile crime and arrests. These decreases have led to a 69 percent decline in the rate of juvenile incarceration, in turn allowing the Office of Juvenile Affairs (OJA) to reduce its detention budget by 58 percent since 1999. Despite these encouraging trends, we have a long way to go in creating an environment where all Oklahoma youth can flourish. Oklahoma still leads the nation in rates of childhood trauma, and justice-involved youth are even more likely to have experienced trauma that requires additional service needs and comprehensive approaches to improve their mental health and long-term outcomes.

Oklahoma should take advantage of declining youth incarceration to reinvest in services  — such as therapy, substance use treatment, education, and family supports — for justice-involved youth. Doing so could help break the cycle of incarceration in Oklahoma by creating a fair and effective juvenile justice system.

Oklahoma juvenile crime and arrest rates have significantly declined

Since 1990, total arrests for Oklahoma youth have decreased by 67 percent, as detailed in the report. Arrests for the most serious offenses — violent and property felonies — have fallen even faster, dropping a remarkable 86 percent. These declines are mirrored by decreases in the number of youth in Oklahoma detention facilities. As a result, OJA’s annual budget has fallen by about $60 million (in 2019 dollars) since 2001, driven largely by decreases in detention costs.

Justice-involved youth have high rates of trauma and additional service needs

Once-fashionable narratives about hardened teenage criminals, limited in their moral reasoning and prone to impulsive behavior, have been called into question by the steep decline in juvenile crime. It now appears that the rise in crime in the 1980s was generational; while youths aged 10 to 17 had the highest arrest rate in 1990, today the arrest rate of youths is below that of adults aged 45 to 49.

However, Oklahoma youth are particularly disadvantaged when it comes to factors that are strongly connected to justice involvement: trauma and Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). National studies show that a staggering 92.5 percent of detained youth reported experiencing trauma and that two out of every three youth in custody have a diagnosable mental health condition. Oklahoma has the highest rate of children with at least one ACE, which include having a parent in prison and experiencing any type of abuse.

Now is the time to reinvest savings into services for youth

Oklahoma’s encouraging trend of declining juvenile crime and incarceration offer the opportunity to pursue a strategy that has shown success in many other states: Justice Reinvestment. This concept involves reinvesting the money saved by reduced incarceration into services that reduce offending by helping children heal. Justice Reinvestment was the animating idea behind Oklahoma’s criminal justice reform push in 2012 as well as State Questions 780 and 781.

Unfortunately, the legislature has so far failed to reinvest the savings from reduced juvenile incarceration into services for youth. Nearly two decades of stagnant revenue and state budget struggles ensured that any money coming out of OJA’s budget was used to prop up other agencies with growing needs.

With state revenue collection at a record high and OJA working to update the state’s plan for juvenile services for the first time since 2008, now is the perfect time to reimagine our current approach. Luckily, there is a proven model for reform ready to be adapted to our state’s needs. The national standard in juvenile justice reform is Models for Change, a comprehensive approach to address areas of juvenile justice including:

  1. Community-based alternatives: Local alternatives to hold young people accountable without disrupting bonds to family and community through incarceration.
  2. Evidence-based practices: Approaches and programs proven to effectively improve behavior and lower rates of reoffending.
  3. Mental health services: Meeting the mental health needs of youth without unnecessary juvenile justice involvement.
  4. Aftercare: Post-release services, supervision, and support that help youth transition successfully back into the community.

All but one of our neighboring states have some form of partnership or collaboration with Models for Change. Louisiana, the state that held the title of highest incarceration prior to Oklahoma, has fully adopted Models for Change in order to address rates of justice involvement in their state. 

Legislators should seize this opportunity to reinvest in services for youth

With juvenile crime and incarceration now at historic lows, now is the perfect time to reinvest in what works. Without addressing the ongoing unmet service needs of our youth, Oklahoma has no hope of moving out of our number one spot in incarceration, let alone becoming a top ten state. Reinvestment in services is a necessary step toward breaking the cycle of incarceration for Oklahoma families. 


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.

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