Juvenile justice is an investment to help youth (Capitol Update)

Office of Juvenile Affairs (OJA) Executive Director Rachel Holt announced the hiring of Bryan Heil as superintendent of the agency’s new “Next Generation Campus.” The secure care (residential) treatment facility for youth who have committed a criminal offense is to be a co-educational, state-of-the-art physical facility. Heil’s job will be to make it a state-of-the-art treatment facility, a job for which he seems well qualified. The facility is under construction on land that is part of the Central Oklahoma Juvenile Center (COJC) in Tecumseh. When it is completed, COJC and Southwest Oklahoma Juvenile Center in Manitou, Oklahoma will close. 

I have a personal history with COJC that goes back for years. As I grew up in Shawnee and later became District Attorney for Pottawatomie County, COJC was known as “Girl’s Town,” an institution for “incorrigible girls.” Girl’s Town was sort of a mysterious place for most people. Like most correctional facilities, it was hard to imagine what went on behind the high fences. Occasionally girls would escape and be picked up within hours or days in or around Tecumseh. 

I can well remember as a young assistant DA, warning girls charged in juvenile court that they had a future in Girl’s Town if they didn’t change their ways. I don’t remember any particulars, but I’m sure I was responsible for sending a few girls there. In those days, even chronic runaways and truants were threatened and perhaps sent to Girl’s Town. Juvenile justice has become more enlightened since then, with community-based and prevention services much more available. 

Later, when I was in the House of Representatives, the Terry D. case alleging mistreatment of children in DHS custody was litigated and settled. As a result of that federal litigation, many changes were made in the Oklahoma Juvenile and Children’s Code, and I was privileged to have a role in that legislation. During that time, Girl’s Town became the Central Oklahoma Juvenile Treatment Center, a co-ed residential treatment facility. Later, DHS attempted to close COJC and move the youth to other facilities in the state. As the representative for the area, I fought against that, and COJC remained open. Briefly, a few years ago the female residents were removed from COJC by OJA, and a treatment facility for females was operated in Norman. That was closed, and today COJC is again co-educational. 

Being involuntarily locked up in any facility always presents a danger of causing more harm than good. This is especially true for children. Thanks to the efforts of former OJA Executive Director Steven Buck and others, the Legislature agreed to a $45 million bond issue that is paying for the construction of the new Next Generation Campus. Through the years, Oklahoma has tried with the resources it had to help troubled kids get better and do better, but we’ve had a lot to learn. It’s a good thing when our leaders make an investment in that effort. Congratulations to Mr. Heil for the important and lifesaving endeavor he is about to undertake.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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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