OJA Board Reduces Estimated Need for Juvenile Detention Services

The Oklahoma Board of Juvenile Affairs today approved further reducing the number of juvenile detention beds the Office of Juvenile Affairs (OJA) will contract for in the upcoming fiscal year.

The revised number of juvenile detention beds represents 14% fewer than the amount approved by the board five months ago, when the nine-member board updated its State Plan for the Establishment of Juvenile Detention Services. The plan determines the number of juvenile detention beds necessary for the state’s current needs and the locations of those needed beds. It also determines the number of juvenile detention beds for which OJA will pay.

In December, the OJA board updated its detention plan for the first time since 2008, which provided for 371 licensed juvenile beds. The plan approved in December, which takes effect July 1, calls for 266 contracted juvenile detention beds in 14 counties across the state.

The revised detention plan approved today calls for 229 contracted juvenile detention beds in 12 counties.

The ongoing coronavirus pandemic, which broke out in mid-March in Oklahoma, and looming state budget cuts were factors for OJA to reconsider the number of beds the agency would require in the 2021 fiscal year, which begins July 1.  OJA looked at detention usage for a nine-month period from July 2019 to April 2020.  The low detention usage since the coronavirus outbreak prompted efforts to reduce the population and lower new admissions was factored in as a reason for the drastic decrease.  The OJA board previously adopted a formula for determining an appropriate number of contracted detention beds in order to fulfill the recommendation from the 2018 Agency Performance Audit by BKD to strategically right-size the number of contracted detention beds.  

Staffing shortages caused by the coronavirus, or COVID-19, led to the closure in late March of the Texas County Juvenile Detention Center. It reopened May 1, but has not had an admission since then. In addition, Beckham County commissioners in March terminated their contract for regional secure detention and the juvenile detention center subcontractor for Muskogee County commissioners notified them in May it decided to end its contract.

Legislative leaders last week announced a 2021 fiscal year budget agreement that proposed an approximate 4% budget cut to OJA and most state agencies. The agreement is awaiting action by the governor.

“OJA’s juvenile services unit has been working to lower our population for OJA custody youth in all levels of out-of-home placement to help ease the burden on youth and staff in congregate care and stay ahead of anticipated staffing shortages across the juvenile justice system,” said OJA interim Executive Director Rachel Holt. “OJA continues to consult with the assigned judges and attorneys regarding these decisions.

“As a result, detention usage has decreased more than 40% due to the statewide cooperation between OJA, judges and district attorneys,” she said. “Because the pandemic is still ongoing and the absolute reality of state budget cuts for fiscal year 2021, it is incumbent on OJA to reassess the state plan for detention at this time.”

The coronavirus pandemic resulted in OJA evaluating all youth in its custody and determining whether they would be appropriate for release back to their community, Holt said.

“We worked to minimize new detention admits to youth who are alleged to have committed serious, violent crimes and are an imminent threat to themselves or the community,” Holt said. “We also closely monitored all detention admits and, in cooperation with judges and district attorneys, worked to make sure detention was not being used for probation violations, drug court violations, misdemeanor charges or status offenders.  Keeping the detention population to only the children who are necessary to detain for community safety helps the detention staff to prioritize social distancing, sanitation and proper hygiene.  This is not an attempt for children to ‘get out of jail free,’ it is a real plan to keep our congregate care population as low as possible to limit the number of children exposed in any possible coronavirus outbreak.  This is in line with national practices.”

OJA pays each detention center for a certain number of beds, whether they are used or not. OJA contracts with county commissioners for secure juvenile detention centers. Counties that do not have detention centers contract with other counties that do have centers.

Oklahoma’s juvenile detention population on March 18 was 215. The population on May 6 was 125. Today’s population is 119.

The 266 contracted beds called for in the plan approved in December is too high, Holt said.

“I can’t justify that to the Legislature, I can’t justify that to the governor, I can’t justify that to the taxpayers,” Holt told board members.

Eliminating contracted juvenile detention beds in Texas County is a difficult decision, she said. The center will receive $394,000 this fiscal year for its 6 contracted beds; the center held 44 juveniles so far this fiscal year.

“We have a responsibility to taxpayers to be good stewards of their money,” said OJA board Chair Karen Youngblood. “OJA has been making good progress to decrease the number of juveniles who require secure detention services. I’m confident that trend will continue and that we will keep a watchful eye for any fluctuations or reversals in trends. While we want to be sure beds are available for those juveniles who need them, we have to be prudent with the funds entrusted to us.”

The plan approved today adjusts the secure detention plan approved in December by allocating contracted juvenile detention beds to detention centers in the following counties:

  • Beckham County: Zero, down from 6.
  • Canadian County: Remains at 10.
  • Cleveland County: Remains at 26.
  • Comanche County: Remains at 25.
  • Craig County: Remains at 16.
  • Garfield County: Remains at 10.
  • LeFlore County: Remains at 10.
  • Lincoln County: Remains at 12.
  • Oklahoma County: 50, down from 60.
  • Pittsburg County: Remains at 10.
  • Pottawatomie County: Remains at 12.
  • Texas County: Zero, down from 6.
  • Tulsa County: 40, down from 55.
  • Woodward County: Remains at 8.

The detention centers are not OJA facilities, but are operated by county employees or a subcontractor selected by the county commissioners of the host county. OJA pays 85% of the approved operating costs for each bed, while counties pick up the remaining 15% of the operating costs when the bed is occupied by a child from their county. Not every child in a detention center is in OJA custody. Oklahoma law only allows secure detention of juveniles in necessary circumstances, including while the juvenile’s legal case is pending adjudication and pending placement identified by OJA for juveniles and youthful offenders in OJA custody.

The number of children in secure detention has been declining, from 3,998 in fiscal year 2017 to 3,306 in the 2019 fiscal year that ended June 30. In recent years, OJA has paid for excess capacity due to no clear plan for periods of declining need.

Holt said she would provide the OJA board with monthly updates on detention usage. Federal legislation and pending Oklahoma legislation would require minors accused of youthful offender crimes to be detained in only juvenile detention centers.  Currently, youthful offenders may be detained in adult detention facilities if the adult center is certified to hold the minors sight-and-sound separate from the adult population. 

Tulsa and Oklahoma counties will see an increase in the need for juvenile detention beds when youthful offenders can no longer be held in adult centers.  Holt said she will work with county commissioners in those two counties and adjust contracted beds if necessary to accommodate increased need.  Alondo Edwards, with Tulsa County’s juvenile detention center, expressed his concern during the public comment period during today’s virtual meeting. Tulsa County’s juvenile detention center today had 13 youth; Tulsa County is currently contracted for 55 beds and the approved allocated beds for the 2021 fiscal year would be 40.  There are approximately 16-20 youthful offenders in Tulsa County’s jail. 

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