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With the overall occurrence of youth delinquency and detention at a historic low, Oklahoma has the opportunity to invest more resources in delinquency prevention and alternatives to incarceration in the youth legal system. The legislature has taken action in recent years to bring needed reforms to the youth justice system, including reducing and eliminating of some fines and fees assessed on justice-involved youth and their families (House Bill 3205), creating a juvenile expungement process (HB 1799), and the prohibiting the housing of youth in adult jails (HB 1282). However, there is more that legislators can do to make our youth legal system more fair for youth.
Fines and fees create barriers to success for youth and their families
Lawmakers eased some of the burden of fees assessed on justice-involved youth and their families in 2022 with HB 3205. According to an Oklahoma Policy Institute analysis, HB 3205 has kept an estimated 5,000 individuals and their families from paying unnecessary court fees. However, there’s still more to be done: fines and fees create financial barriers for youth in the justice system and introduce additional stress into Oklahoma families. Youth who are assessed fines and fees are also more likely to reoffend than their peers who are not assessed fines or fees.
Juvenile cases often have multiple fees assessed depending on the charge and judgment, and these fees can add up to large amounts. These fees include:
- Cost of behavioral or mental health treatment while detained, with no cap on the maximum amount assessed to youth and their families.
- If a young person requests counsel, which is a right outlined in the U.S. Constitution, the young person or family may be required to pay for cost of representation depending on their ability to pay, as well as a mandatory $15 application fee.
- Young people or their families are also required to pay for costs associated with supervision or drug court, which range from $20-$25 per month.
Families can also be further penalized for not paying these fees with additional fines or imprisonment for noncompliance. Further, estimates suggest that only 5-11 percent of costs assessed on criminal cases are collected, making it an inefficient revenue stream for funding courts and probation services.
Additionally, HB 3205 did not eliminate fines assessed in the youth legal system. While judges can choose to weigh a family’s ability to pay, families can still be saddled with the high costs associated with certain offenses. Some of these fines include:
- Noncompliance with sex offender registration compliance, which carries a fine of up to $1,000. [10A O.S. § 2-8-107(B)]
- If a parent assumes responsibility of youth accused of delinquent act via written promise, and then does not bring the youth to court or pay for damages caused by youth released into their care, fine of not more than $500 or imprisonment in county jail for no more than six months. [10A O.S. § 2-2-101(B)]
- Fine in the amount that would have been imposed if youth was convicted of the crime as an adult. [10A O.S. § 2-2-503 (7)(d)]
- Fines and assessments for specified offenses, including purchasing or possessing tobacco [10A O.S. § 2-8-224(B)]; transmission of child pornography [10A O.S. § 2-8-221(B) and 10A O.S. § 2-8-221(B)(2)]; possessing prohibited item in juvenile facility [10A O.S. § 2-7-611(B)(2)], and with unpaid fines leading to suspension or non-issuance of drivers’ license.
A minimum age of adjudication would protect young children in the legal system
Oklahoma currently has no minimum age for legal proceedings against minors, which is known as age of adjudication. As a result , all children over the age of seven can be referred to the state Office of Juvenile Affairs and be subject to legal judgment and court proceedings. If lawmakers established a minimum age of adjudication, it would mean that young children referred to OJA would be ensured developmentally appropriate services suited to their specific needs, such as community-based services. According to an Oklahoma Policy Institute analysis of OJA data, less than 8 percent of referrals for children under 12 are adjudicated, so establishing a minimum age of adjudication would maintain the unwritten status quo of not exposing young children to court proceedings.
There are good reasons to divert young children from the court system. When young children become involved in the justice system, it increases the likelihood that they will be justice-involved as adults. Diverting young children from the justice system to community-based services helps them stay in school, which helps prevent problem behaviors. It also ensures adequate resources are available for older children — ages 12 and up — who would be subject to court proceedings. Reserving adjudication for older children will ensure younger justice-involved children can access needed and developmentally appropriate services.
Funding alternatives to incarceration could reduce racial disparities in the youth justice system
Oklahoma needs to explore alternatives to incarceration to correct the overrepresentation of Black youth in the justice system. Black youth represent nearly 1 in 4 referrals to the Office of Juvenile Affairs but make up less than 8 percent of the population. These disparities have existed in the youth justice system for decades, and policymakers and elected officials have yet to correct this imbalance. While total youth referrals to OJA have fallen, they have not fallen equally; Black youth remain increasingly more likely to be referred to Oklahoma’s youth justice system than their peers.
Even with referrals to the state’s youth justice system trending down, the referral rate for Black youths has remained larger than the percentage of Black youth in the state’s overall population. This shows that previous policies have not addressed racial imbalances. To address these disparities, elected officials and policymakers should look at alternatives to incarceration. Implementing more alternatives to incarceration to the youth justice system is necessary because utilizing correctional facilities or probation to rehabilitate youth is ineffective. Youth who are released from state custody suffer high rates of rearrest, new adjudications and convictions, and reincarceration.
The ineffectiveness of incarceration for youth underscores the need to fund alternatives to incarceration and delinquency prevention. The current moment represents a good opportunity for these interventions now that we have fewer youth involved in the juvenile justice system than ever before. OJA recently created a functional family therapy program for youth in the legal system, which is an intensive, short-term therapeutic model that offers in-home family counseling. This intervention is designed to address delinquent behaviors from a relational, family-based perspective. However, due to state funding constraints, this program — and other effective delinquency treatment services — are not available in all Oklahoma counties.
Oklahoma’s youth are worthy of investment
The mission of the state Office of Juvenile Affairs is to “collaborate with youth, families, and community partners to create pathways for success through prevention and treatment for all Oklahoma youth.” In this current moment, Oklahoma has the opportunity to make impactful investments to the youth justice system that will help better ensure OJA can fulfill its responsibilities. Data-driven interventions — along with robust state funding by lawmakers — can better position Oklahoma children and their families to secure brighter futures. Oklahoma’s youth are worthy of investment, and the impact of these reforms would be felt for generations to come.