Facing the Facts, and Seeking Reform, in State’s Juvenile Justice System

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When they gathered at the State Capitol last week, criminal justice experts seemingly had reason to celebrate: From 2001 to 2013, the number of Oklahoma juvenile offenders ordered by courts into the state’s secure detention centers dropped by 56 percent, slightly more than the national rate.

But no one at Tuesday’s meeting of juvenile justice officials, judges, prosecutors and legislators was trumpeting progress.

Some of the reasons:

• Questions remain about whether juveniles placed in community diversion or probation are getting the help they need to veer off a course of crime and addiction.

• Many offenders held in state detention centers are effectively shut out of alternative programs because no programs exist in the area or available programs are overwhelmed with children from the Department of Human Services. DHS is under court orders to reform the child welfare system.

• In 2014, 17 percent of juveniles placed in secure state facilities, and 33 percent of youths in the highest-tier “Level E” group homes, re-offended, according to the Oklahoma Office of Juvenile Affairs. The group homes are run by private contractors. The recidivism rate for community-based programs was 13 percent.

• Between 60 percent and 70 percent of juveniles in secure facilities nationwide have a diagnosable mental illness, and between 25 percent and 50 percent have substance abuse disorders, a Pew Charitable Trusts study found. The picture is likely similar in Oklahoma, yet “we still have a system that we designed to deal with traditional delinquency,” said state Sen. A.J. Griffin, R-Guthrie, who attended the meeting and has sponsored bills proposing changes to the juvenile justice system.

For these and other reasons, Oklahoma officials are preparing to seek a grant of up to $1 million from the U.S. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention to reform the juvenile system.

Sen. A.J. Griffin

Sen. A.J. Griffin

But first they’re applying to the nonprofit Council of State Governments, which works with states to shape policies, for technical assistance in drafting a plan. Oklahoma is among eight states seeking the council’s assistance. The council will select three states in April, and work on a plan would begin in May. The council would issue recommendations in early 2017, and a grant application would follow.

Council representatives visited Oklahoma last week to discuss paths toward juvenile system reform and learn how receptive state officials are to changes, said Mark Ferrante, senior policy analyst for the council’s Justice Center.

The Justice Center has worked with Oklahoma before through the Justice Reinvestment Initiative.

“What we do with the juvenile system affects what we’re doing with the adult system,” said Scott Williams, chair of the state Office of Juvenile Affairs board. “It affects how we’re spending taxpayer dollars, how we’re able to rehabilitate young people so they don’t go deeper into the system.”

As part of its site visit, Council of State Government analysts met separately with small groups of judges and district attorneys, juvenile system administrators, service providers and legislators. Each group was asked to share thoughts on the juvenile system and what improvements are needed.

Referring to the decline in detention, Ferrante said evidence shows that youths treated in community-based programs are far less likely to reoffend.

However, “what we found is that while the vast majority of states have reduced incarceration rates, there are questions about what is happening to the kids who still do end up in the deepest end of the system – and even more so what happens to the larger number of kids who end up remaining in the community under community supervision … What are the outcomes like?”

One study in Texas showed many juveniles placed in close-to-home programs were not matched to services that target their critical needs. Instead the programs were geared more toward probation surveillance. These findings have implications for all states seeking to reform their juvenile justice systems, Ferrante said.

“They were not receiving evidence-based services,” Ferrante said. “The net result was the outcomes did not really improve.”

Ferrante said conversations indicated rural counties still have trouble finding alternatives to detention.

“There was either detention or really nothing,” Ferrante said.

Ferrante praised the state’s collection of data on recidivism for juvenile offenders.

The question is “whether that data actually gets translated into specific policies and practices or whether there are barriers that prevent that specific implementation,” Ferrante said.

He also cited a state law passed in 2015 that allows competency hearings for juveniles facing delinquency proceedings, which brought Oklahoma more in line with the rest of the nation.

Ferrante said judges and district attorneys with whom he met said they wanted the Legislature to get behind the reforms.

“They said, ‘Help us stem the pipeline … to that adult system,’” through treatment and community-based services, he said.

Sen. Griffin said if the state receives assistance from the Council of State Governments, she hopes it will yield reforms that base juvenile programs on data-driven evidence.

“We would be using evidence-based practices, and we would be maximizing the amount of money we have,” Griffin said. “We can do it quickly because the pieces are all in place. We just have to tweak a few things.”

Williams, the juvenile affairs board chair, said he is optimistic about Oklahoma’s chances of receiving the council’s assistance.

“We’re doing a lot of best-practice things, and we weren’t the outlier in a lot of areas. So a lot of what we’re doing already makes sense,” Williams said. “I think it puts us in a good position to be one of the three states considered. If not, it ensures that we continue on the right track.”

Note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly spelled Mark Ferrante’s name.