Juvenile Justice system more punitive and less effective, critics say
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Published: 15-Oct-2014

OKLAHOMA CITY -- Oklahoma’s juvenile justice system has become more punitive and less rehabilitative, a posture that’s proving counter-productive and expensive, according to the Rev. Dr. Stan Basler.

A fervent proponent of restorative, rather than retributive, justice, Basler contends that juvenile offenders should be treated differently than adults. Minors are “inherently less culpable” and are more susceptible to peer pressure, because of their immaturity, he explained. Youngsters suspended from school are “a major problem” in this state, Basler said. He contended that churches can provide a valuable public service by creating “safe havens” for minors who get suspended from school for misbehavior. He also said that family-based intervention is cost-effective in helping wayward juveniles turn their lives around.

Basler serves on the Citizens for Juvenile Justice Board of Directors, is director of the United Methodist Criminal Justice and Mercy Ministry of Oklahoma City, and is president of the Saint Paul School of Theology at Oklahoma City University.

Rev. Basler was among the speakers who addressed the House Committee on Public Safety recently when it conducted an interim legislative study of research and data evaluation in juvenile justice. “Dr. Basler and I attended high school together and ran around in the same ‘gang’,” quipped state Rep. Steve Martin, R-Bartlesville, the committee chairman.

“This is a complicated subject,” said Rep. Seneca Scott, D-Tulsa, a member of the Choctaw Tribe who serves on the Tulsa Metropolitan Ministry’s Committee Against Racism.

More than 9,950 youths who accounted for nearly 14,100 arrests and more than 20,000 offenses were referred to Oklahoma’s Juvenile Justice System in Fiscal Year 2014, ledgers reflect. 
A little over two-thirds of the offenders were males and a little less than a third were females. Almost three-quarters of the kids were 16 or younger, and 11% of them were younger than 13. Their races were 52% white, 22% black, 15% Native American, 9% Hispanic, and the remainder were Asians and other ethnic groups.

The offenses they committed were primarily property crimes, 35%; crimes against other persons, 18%; drug/alcohol offenses, 15%; disorderly conduct/traffic violations/judicial citations, 15%; status offenses, 13%; weapons offenses, 2%; and other, 2%. The primary offenses committed by Oklahoma juveniles are alcohol and tobacco theft and/or consumption, and physical violence.

Among the 2,961 adjudications that occurred in FY14, records show, 97% of the youths were deemed to be delinquent, 63 were classified as youthful offenders and 19 were declared in need of supervision.

The five principal reasons adolescents were referred to the state Office of Juvenile Affairs (OJA) were malicious injury/destruction of property, assault and battery, second-degree burglary, marijuana possession, and petty larceny.

Minorities constitute a disproportionate number of those referrals, the legislators were told.

In 2008, as an illustration, the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report showed that more than half of juvenile arrests for violent crimes and one-third of the minors arrested for property crimes were black youths. “This occurred while black youth accounted for 16% of the youth population between the ages of 10 and 17,” said Dr. Paul Ketchum of the University of Oklahoma.

Scientific analysis of 60,347 juvenile arrests in Oklahoma City, Tulsa and Lawton indicated that compared to white youths, blacks were twice as likely to be arrested, and Native Americans were two and a half times as likely to be detained.

The typical, accepted perception is that differences in family structure among blacks and Native Americans is the most common explanation for the racial disparity in juvenile arrests. 

However, Ketchum reported, detailed research revealed “no statistical difference” in the odds” of white juveniles committing crimes, compared to non-whites.

Ketchum told the legislators that there are three types of racism: “overt” racism, such as that exhibited by so-called rednecks; inadvertent “color-blind” racism; and “institutional” racism, in which social structures operate in a manner that disadvantages a group, either intentionally or otherwise.

State Rep. Kevin Matthews, D-Tulsa, said racial diversity is “needed in the decision-making process.”

Matthews and Scott jointly requested the interim legislative study, which was held in the state Capitol and was attended by approximately 50 people. “My primary goal was to improve collaboration among the various stakeholders in order to aid support for these young adults,” Scott said.

Several of those who attended the meeting were from Tulsa. They included Twan Jones, former leader of Tulsa’s NAACP who has been active in efforts to reduce disproportionate minority contact with the criminal justice system; Shelley Cadamy, executive director of Workforce Tulsa; Ray Hickman, executive director of Tulsa Metropolitan Ministry; Dave Richardson of the Tulsa County Juvenile Bureau; and former Speaker of the House Steve Lewis.

The OJA monitors juvenile offenses via the Juvenile On-Line Tracking System (JOLTS), Executive Director Keith Wilson said.

JOLTS has 3,080 active users, including the OJA staff, district attorneys, district judges, detention centers, the state Department of Human Services, the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation and the state Corrections Department.

The system is used to collect demographic information, such as offender names (including aliases), addresses, relatives and guardians, identifying marks such as scars and/or tattoos, photos, school information, and gang membership, if any. OJA also tracks juvenile arrest details, out-of-home juvenile placement information (such as foster care, or confinement in a detention center or at a youth service shelter), court hearings, and programs/services provided to juvenile offenders.

OJA also monitors juvenile substance-abuse testing. Between July 1, 2013, and June 30, 2014, law enforcement agencies reported conducting more than 5,000 drug tests on 1,874 Oklahoma juveniles. More than two-thirds of those tests detected no drugs; 1,433 were positive for one or more drugs; 294 were positive for two or more drugs; and 129 were positive for three or more drugs.

“We have over five million case notes in our system,” said Len Morris, OJA’s chief of data collection.

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