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A new look at juvenile offenders in Oklahoma

by THE OKLAHOMAN EDITORIAL BOARD Published: Sun, September 29, 2019 1:06 AM Updated: Sun, September 29, 2019 1:30 AM

Steve Buck

A few things that Steve Buck said recently about his agency’s budget request for next year should be noted by lawmakers as they consider their appropriation to the Office of Juvenile Affairs.

Buck, OJA’s executive director, is requesting a 7.6 percent increase in state funding, or an additional $7.35 million. Of that total, $1.6 million would go to detention providers and $359,000 would be used to reconstruct a research and data analytics unit that was eliminated several years ago.

The former is needed, Buck said, because providers are “struggling to serve young people who are presenting with very acute mental illness and very significant levels of developmental disability.”

This should come as no surprise. High rates of mental illness in Oklahoma have been a longstanding concern. In a recent report, the Oklahoma Policy Institute noted that national studies show 92.5 percent of detained juveniles reported experiencing trauma, and diagnosable mental health conditions are seen in two out of every three. Oklahoma has the highest rate of children with at least one adverse childhood experience, OK Policy said.

Buck also said having solid data is a must for OJA to “identify hot spots for specific investment, but then also develop strategies around those hot spots for how we can do things differently. It’s a way to help us harness our time, effort and energy.”

Do things differently. That’s encouraging, although not a surprise. A year ago, as Buck discussed a campus renovation that was just getting underway, he mentioned the importance of getting away from OJA’s older, inadequate facilities.

“We have to encourage our young people that their lives are worth investing in,” Buck said then. “When you’re walking across a campus with broken sidewalks and air conditioning that’s inconsistent at best, and aging buildings, that’s not the message we’re sending.”

One goal of the renovation is to provide a more therapeutic environment for juvenile offenders, one that will help the teens' return to society.

To that end, OK Policy recommends the state take savings gained by a continuing reduction in youth incarceration and reinvest those in services such as therapy, substance abuse treatment, education and family supports. (In the OJA budget request, $343,000 would fund family engagement efforts.)

“With state revenue collection at a record high and OJA working to update the state’s plan for juvenile services for the first time since 2008, now is the perfect time to reimagine our current approach,” OK Policy said. It suggested the state look at practices touted by Models for Change, which advocates for a juvenile justice reform.

The report may give Buck and his team something to consider, although it’s evident they’re intent on shaping the agency in a way that gives Oklahoma’s most challenging young people a fighting chance to turn their lives around.