Risk assessment tool needs to be carefully crafted to best serve justice-involved youth (Capitol Update)

Senate Bill 1282 by Sen. John Haste, R-Tulsa, and Rep. Mark Lawson, R-Sapulpa, was presented on the House floor last week. The bill requires a risk-assessment screening tool approved by the Office of Juvenile Affairs (OJA) to be used when a child is taken into custody pursuant to the Oklahoma Juvenile Code, to help determine if the child should be detained. The bill exposed a usually unnoticed conflict. Risk-assessment screening tools are controversial. Who knew? 

The issue develops like this: a decision must be made as to where to place the child pending court proceedings when a child is taken into custody. The child could be taken into custody for committing what would be a crime if committed by an adult (known as a status offense, such as being out of control or a runaway). They could also be taken into custody if the child is abused or neglected, or if the child needs mental health or substance-use treatment. The placement options can include a secure detention facility, the child’s home, or a shelter or foster home. 

The decision usually must be made on incomplete information about the child because they were recently taken into custody. To help fill this gap, OJA developed a risk-assessment screening tool to evaluate the important factors in making a detention decision. Ideally, use of the tool in every case would make detention decisions more uniform, less subject to human bias, and more likely to result in the safety of the child and the community, as well as the child’s return to court when required. 

The problem is that screening tools can have built-in bias of their own. For example, a question asking how many times the child has been previously arrested or adjudicated carries with it unrecognized bias. Black, American Indian, and Latinx children are far more likely to be arrested or adjudicated for the same behavior that white children are not similarly arrested or adjudicated. When the assessment tool scores previous arrests or adjudications as a ground for detention, the result can be racially biased and cause the child to be detained. Several House members opposed the bill for that reason. 

Others likely opposed the bill on another ground: a “role-of-government” issue. A child might be taken into custody for a relatively minor offense or misbehavior, and the parent would not want their child to be “assessed,” which could open other issues. Judging from some of the “no” votes on the bill, this was likely a factor. The bill ultimately passed with 70 “yes” votes, 15 “no” votes and an unusually high 15 “excused” House members not voting. 

The 15 House members who did not vote probably reflect the internal (and political) conflict the bill can generate. There is both value and risk in using assessment tools. They may be better than no guidelines at all; but unless carefully crafted, they create their own biases. The questions, answers, debate, and the vote on a bill like SB 1282 are what make the nuts and bolts of legislating and governing interesting and important. This bill likely won’t make anyone’s list of top 10 accomplishments of this year’s Legislature, but it’s important to get it right. There’s little doubt detention can be an adverse childhood experience, therefore, a detention decision made when a child is at their most vulnerable can have a lifelong effect.


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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