After resignation of director, will Oklahoma keep improving juvenile justice system? (Capitol Updates)

Photo by Iris Shreve Garrott / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
Photo by Iris Shreve Garrott / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Steve Lewis served as Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives from 1989-1991. He currently practices law in Tulsa and represents clients at the Capitol. You can sign upĀ on his website to receive theĀ Capitol Updates newsletter by email.

Generally beneath the radar screen, some potentially significant changes are underway for the Office of Juvenile Affairs (OJA.) OJA provides prevention and treatment programs for delinquent children or those who may be at risk of becoming delinquent. A child is delinquent if declared so by a court for committing an act that would be a crime if the child were an adult. OJA provides services through community based prevention and treatment services, counseling, shelters, detention, probation, group homes, secure residential facilities and re-entry.

OJA Director Keith Wilson resigned last month along with the agency’s chief of staff. Wilson, a retired lawyer and judge in Kansas and former public defender in Oklahoma understands the juvenile justice system and left behind some significant accomplishments. He created and obtained funding from the legislature for a separate secure facility for girls who had previously been confined in the coed Central Oklahoma Juvenile Treatment Facility in Tecumseh. He also got legislation passed and started an OJA charter school for children in the agency’s three residential institutions.

Although the legislature has been protective of OJA funding, even in hard times, legislators want to insure that in lean times the state is getting the best results for its investment to protect the public from juvenile offenses and to help these children. Numbers of children in delinquency proceedings “in the system” have gone down in Oklahoma as they have throughout the country. This is the result of success in prevention, diversion and treatment programs but also of shifting some children more quickly into the adult corrections system. There are still many lives being diminished by bad choices resulting in criminal acts. Both with the children left in the juvenile justice system and those sent to adult corrections, we can do a better job. Moving forward, Wilson’s departure opens the door for the OJA board to hire a new director who may take the agency in a new direction.

Fortunately, there is a strong core of informed and interested legislators who are willing to fight necessary battles in a destructive fiscal climate to give these troubled youth a chance. They’ll be looking to make sure all the OJA programs are as high-quality as possible, probably better than they’ll have the money to pay for. They’ll want to spend the state’s resources on programs that work to keep kids out of the system and to keep them from reoffending once they’re in the system. Hopefully the efforts of committed legislators and OJA will meet the needs of the kids and the community by using both new programs and those we’re already doing that are working well.

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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.

2 thoughts on “After resignation of director, will Oklahoma keep improving juvenile justice system? (Capitol Updates)

  1. So many of the children who have been adjudicated delinquent could have been aimed towards a more successful path if truly preventive services had been instituted early on. A surprising number of them became visible many years before when they were identified as abused children. If different outcomes are desirable then different approaches must be instituted. The kids are still able to change if they are provided with a safe and caring environment. Unfortunately, when budgets are threatened preventative services are diminished. So, we do get what we pay for.

  2. There is a large and fast-moving pipeline between poverty, discrimination and the reduced life chances associated with those problems, and the many public policies that unfairly target poor and minority youth:
    * Growing up in a community where 80% of school children have one or more parent who is or has been subjected to criminal prosecution, incarceration, probation, parole
    * Attending schools that are underfunded, under-supplied, and which have disciplinary policies that criminalize normal childhood behavior
    * Living in neighborhoods that are over-policed and then undergoing harsher arrest, conviction and sentencing patterns than apply to children who are not black or brown
    * Experiencing one or more removals from their families of origin and being bounced around between foster placements
    * Being incarcerated and subjected to the physical, emotional, intellectual and social assaults that accompany imprisonment

    The sum total of these experiences is creating a permanent underclass. Our children bear this burden. Any workable solution will have to start at the bottom and address poverty, lack of opportunity, and the totally broken criminal justice system in this state. These kids are just the tip of the iceberg. There’s much more lurking beneath the surface, ready to wreck the lives of countless numbers of Oklahomans.

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