Oklahoma’s juvenile crime and incarceration rates plummet, but we must address deep racial disparities

Crime rates and criminal arrests of youth in Oklahoma have declined massively over the last 25 years. However, despite these promising developments, black and brown youth are still disproportionately represented in Oklahoma’s juvenile justice system. A new report from Open Justice Oklahoma explores the notable change that has occurred in our state’s juvenile justice system and what it means for our adult justice system in coming years. In the coming weeks, we will highlight several findings from the report on the OK Policy blog.

Juvenile crime and incarceration are at historic lows

The juvenile arrest rate peaked in Oklahoma in 1990, with nearly 3,200 arrests per 100,000 youth for serious, Part I violent and property offenses that year. Since then, arrest rates have declined by 86 percent, falling below 500 per 100,000 in 2018.  This decline was even more dramatic than a 78 percent decrease nationally during the same period. Additionally, drug arrests for youth have fallen by about 45 percent in Oklahoma since their peak around 2000 and the rate of homicide deaths of Oklahoma youth have been cut in half. While all races and age groups saw major declines in total arrest rates, the biggest declines occurred among Oklahomans under age 13, which have fallen by 92 percent since 1990.

As arrests of youth have fallen, so too have incarcerations. In 1999, the average daily population of Oklahoma’s juvenile facilities was 757 people; by 2019, that number had fallen to 270, a decline of 69 percent when adjusting for population growth. For youth under age 15, detention placements fell from 128 to just 14 in 2018.

Black and Native American youth are still arrested and incarcerated at far higher rates than White youth

Despite these encouraging trends, severe racial disparities remain and in some cases have grown worse. Although both White and Black youth saw sharp reductions in crime and violence between 2000 and 2017, Black teenagers remained about twice as likely to be arrested for a drug offense and three times more likely to be arrested overall.

As in other aspects of the justice system, racial disparities grow worse at each step; disparate arrest rates are amplified when it comes to incarceration, with Black youth 6.4 times more likely to be incarcerated than White youth. Similarly, Native American youth who are arrested are much more likely to be incarcerated than other races. Native youth incarcerations amounted to 9.7 percent of Native youth arrests in 2018, compared to just 4.0 percent for Black youth, 2.3 percent for Hispanic youth, and 1.5 percent for White youth. Despite their higher arrest rates, Whites have lower levels of incarceration than Hispanic, and much lower than Native, youth.

These trends mean big savings and the opportunity to reimagine juvenile justice

The decline in youth crime saves Oklahoma $40 to $50 million per year in juvenile incarceration costs alone. However, there is considerable room for additional reductions in incarceration costs. By reducing juvenile incarcerations for minor, nonviolent offenses and minimizing local and racial disparities, it would be possible to further reduce state juvenile facility populations and save additional tens of millions of dollars.

Large declines in juvenile crime and incarceration are a rare bright spot in Oklahoma’s justice system, and they afford historic opportunities for reform and realignment of the justice system. Oklahoma’s trends and recent reforms in drug and property crime policies offer the state the opportunity to become a national leader in criminal justice innovation.

You can read the report on the Open Justice Oklahoma website. Remember to check back in the coming weeks to read more on our findings.


Ryan Gentzler worked at OK Policy from January 2016 until November 2022. He last served as the organization's Reserach Director and oversaw Open Justice Oklahoma. He began at OK Policy as an analyst focusing on criminal justice issues, including sentencing, incarceration, court fines and fees, and pretrial detention. Open Justice Oklahoma grew out of Ryan’s groundbreaking analysis of court records, which was used to inform critical policy debates. A native Nebraskan, he holds a Master of Public Administration degree from the University of Oklahoma and a BA in Institutions and Policy from William Jewell College. He served as an OK Policy Research Fellow in 2014-2015.

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