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Tulsa County District Judge Doris Fransein: Why juvenile justice should be a higher budget priority

Jan 29, 2015 | by Lynn Powell

Several years ago, I was honored to participate as co-chairman of the Oklahoma Juvenile Justice Reform Committee, established in 2010 by House joint resolution. The committee was charged, in part, with the review of Oklahoma’s juvenile justice system, including its efficiency and effectiveness in protecting the public and habilitating or rehabilitating juvenile delinquents.

After two years of study, our finished product was a “best practice” modification to our juvenile code, but we hit a barrier in recommending an efficient and effective organization and programs to accomplish the goals of Oklahoma’s juvenile justice system. Why? Oklahoma’s state agency responsible for the implementation and funding of programs within this state — the Office of Juvenile Affairs — suffered crippling budget cuts that rendered it incapable outside of mere survival.

We did not have to re-invent the wheel. Many states have faced major budget cuts. In an effort to meet the unique needs of adolescents and the safety needs of the communities, Washington, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Florida and others have been able to apply a cost-benefit analysis in an effort to save taxpayer dollars and reduce recidivism. They were able to institute evidence-based community programs (such as functional family therapy and aggression replacement training), provide effective mental health, substance abuse or psychiatric treatment, life skills training program, and do most of this with the youth remaining in the community with his or her family.

Florida gained a cost benefit of $36.4 million by keeping kids out of locked detentions; Pennsylvania saved $317 million in reduced criminal justice costs and salaries; Wisconsin reduced the monthly cost by more than $2,000 per youth; and Washington saved $11.66 for each $1 spent on proven effective programs.

So now you ask: What’s the problem? Just implement those programs and save us some more money. The answer is: We can’t. Not with OJA’s current budget woes. OJA was appropriated $105 million in 2007. It received $96 million in 2014. As a response, OJA eliminated a secured facility for older youth. Now 14-year-olds are housed with 18-plus age youth. The Rader Center — conveniently located in eastern Oklahoma — was closed with no replacement facility.

The mental health unit was eliminated as well as specialized group homes for special needs youth. Gang prevention contracts as well as military mentoring went by the wayside as well as the contract with an outstanding program offered by Thunderbird Academy. OJA is no longer able to provide transportation assistance for parents to attend family therapy with their children who are placed hours away from home and a proven evidence-based program most effective in addressing drug abuse and delinquency was dissolved.

The only female residential treatment facility is at risk of closing. And most disheartening is the reduction of specialized training for line staff whose average wage is $8 per hour.

Oklahoma youth deserve much more. Decades of quality research has proven that smaller and community-based facilities are most effective in targeting programming and operations that are responsive to the specific treatment and supervision needs of the youth in their care. A child’s continued connection to family and community is critical to the success of youth development.

There must be a creation of a continuum of community-based youth development services and supervision options for youth. Evidence-based treatment such as multisystemic therapy and functional family therapy — all proven to produce lower recidivism, improved school performance and reduce drug abuse — ought to be available to all youth and families. And for those youth who must be confined, aftercare services upon release are imperative.

By initially investing in evidence-based programs, states are realizing the decline of costly expenditures for prisons and institutions. Likewise, Oklahoma must learn to invest and spend its limited resources effectively on our most precious commodity — our youth. We can no longer afford to build more prisons to house those adults we have chosen to ignore as children.

Doris Fransein is a Tulsa County district judge.

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