New report examines Oklahoma’s youth justice system, proposes reforms 

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For More Information, Contact: Dave Hamby, Communication Director
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A new report from the Oklahoma Policy Institute shows that issues with Oklahoma’s youth justice system mirror problems seen in its adult justice system, most notably that children of color are overrepresented and the state’s overreliance on fines and fees to fund core operations damages families and communities. 

Better Tomorrows: A Landscape Analysis of Oklahoma’s Youth Justice System and Suggested Reforms reviews the historical context for Oklahoma’s youth justice system, examines contemporary processes and actors within the system, and recommends a series of reforms that can help achieve better outcomes for justice-involved children and their families. 

“Our research showed a clear need for Oklahoma to make purposeful investments both of attention and resources so our state can rehabilitate children who become involved in the justice system and help guide towards becoming productive members of our communities,” said OK Policy Executive Director Ahniwake Rose. 

For this report, OK Policy staff gathered information during listening sessions and informal interviews with more than 60 people, including justice-involved children, their families, and representatives from youth-serving organizations statewide. The report also examined state and federal data, the state’s system of youth-serving agencies, and current and historic laws. 

To better understand the current context for the state’s youth justice system, the report looks at Oklahoma’s unique and tumultuous history that includes the Indian Removal Act, the Tulsa Race Massacre, and other events that created generational trauma. Oklahoma families today find themselves shouldering disproportionately large economic, social, and emotional burdens that are compounded by the state’s ongoing disinvestment in public services and programs.

The report also notes that protections within the youth justice system have largely been forced by litigation, such as the Terry D. lawsuit and the closing of the L.E. Rader Juvenile Detention Center. Efforts to bring about reform have frequently been hamstrung by Oklahoma’s structural budget deficit.

Various youth-serving agencies and organizations have responsibilities for rehabilitating and protecting youth who become involved in the justice system. The report outlines the various paths a young person can take through the system, as well as examines data that shows Oklahoma children of color are over-represented throughout. 

Data from the report show that Black youth remain about twice as likely to be arrested for a drug offense and three times more likely to be arrested in comparison to white youth. When it comes to incarceration, Black youth are 6.4 times more likely to be incarcerated than white youth. Similarly, American Indian youth who are arrested are much more likely to be incarcerated than other races. 

Additionally, the report found large differences in the youth referrals throughout the state when looking at youth referrals to the justice system for July 2018 to July 2019. Per capita referrals range from zero in Grant County to almost 90 referrals per 1,000 county residents in Comanche County. Rounding out the top five counties for youth referrals during that period were Pontotoc, Woodward, Ottawa, and Kay counties. 

A wide array of Oklahoma organizations are responsible for ensuring the health and well-being for justice-involved children, and the shortcomings of Oklahoma’s youth justice system do not rest with any organization or individual. The report recognizes that the state’s youth-serving agencies are staffed by passionate, hardworking people committed to the well-being of the children in their care. However, every actor in the youth justice system must grapple with the state’s present circumstances, while also recognizing the decisions made by their predecessors in response to their contemporary circumstances.

“OK Policy chose to dive deeply into youth justice issues to help everyday Oklahomans better understand a complex system and create a public conversation about how our state can better provide essential services,” said OK Policy’s Policy Director Carly Putnam. “Every Oklahoman has a responsibility for the health and welfare of young people in our state.” 

While Oklahoma continues to make gradual progress on youth justice issues in recent years, the Better Tomorrows report shows the state’s current youth justice system and its involved agencies still have room for growth to better serve our children and families. Meaningful, sustained investments Oklahoma’s children are needed to ensure their success into adolescence and adulthood. Further, focused work is needed to better protect children in the youth justice system, from eliminating youth fees and fines to ensuring quality counsel for youth. 

Proposed Reforms

Focus on youth-serving systems

  • Eliminate youth court fines and fees to help Oklahoma’s children and their families get back on track. 
  • Ensure quality legal counsel for justice-involved children.
  • Establish a minimum age of criminal responsibility in Oklahoma. 
  • Increase transparency and accountability by requiring regular reporting and clearly defined systems to measure success.
  • Encourage authentic family engagement by youth-serving agencies, as strong families are a key component in positive youth outcomes. 
  • Establish a youth justice policy advocacy coalition to build power for sustained change.

Invest in Oklahoma families 

  • Invest in youth and families through tax and budget changes and policies that offer families with children.
  • Invest in education.
  • Extend and expand support services, particularly in rural areas.
  • Fully fund core services and agencies in the youth justice sector. 

About the Oklahoma Policy Institute

The Oklahoma Policy Institute advances equitable and fiscally responsible policies that expand opportunity for all residents through its nonpartisan research, analysis, and advocacy. Through data-driven research and programs such as Together Oklahoma, Open Justice Oklahoma, and the KIDS COUNT Network, OK Policy is engaged in advancing dialogue about state budget and tax policy, along with health care, criminal justice, education, poverty, social insurance programs, economic opportunity, voting, and civic engagement. The organization seeks to create an Oklahoma where everyone has the opportunity to be healthy, raise thriving families, and live in safe communities.


David Hamby has more than 25 years of experience as an award-winning communicator, including overseeing communication programs for Oklahoma higher education institutions and other organizations. Before joining OK Policy, he was director of public relations for Rogers State University where he managed the school’s external communication programs and served as a member of the president’s leadership team. He served in a similar communications role for five years at the University of Tulsa. He also has worked in communications roles at Oklahoma State University and the Fort Smith Chamber of Commerce in Arkansas. He joined OK Policy in October 2019.

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