Child welfare advocates are looking at strategies to remove all juveniles from county jails in Oklahoma over safety and security concerns, as well as changes in federal law.

Oklahoma’s juvenile detention system is operating at about 85 percent capacity, so there is adequate space to keep all juveniles awaiting trial out of adult jails, officials said Friday at a meeting of the Oklahoma Commission on Children and Youth. In April, there were 43 juveniles detained in adult facilities throughout the state.

At the meeting, leaders from state agencies started conversations on how Oklahoma can improve the way it detains youth involved in the criminal justice system. OCCY is a state oversight agency that monitors public and private entities that serve children and youth in Oklahoma.

The discussion came just weeks after a 16-year old died after he attempted to hang himself at the Oklahoma County Detention Center. John Leroy Daniel Applegate was found unresponsive in his cell in April and later died from his injuries at an Oklahoma City hospital on May 1.

At the meeting, Carrie Blumert, District 1 Oklahoma County Commissioner, said she would like to see all juveniles moved out of the Oklahoma County jail.

“We do have space in our juvenile facility for these kids and they shouldn’t be held in our jail,” Blumert said. “I’d love to have help to have that happen.”

OCCY has launched an investigation into Applegate’s death.

Blumert and Sheriff P.D. Taylor last week requested OCCY review county policies on housing youth in the county’s adult jail.

“It’s time as a commission to delve into this issue in a very, very deep way outside of our usual routine work,” said OCCY director Annette Jacobi.

The Office of Juvenile Affairs is looking at ways to remove all juveniles from county jails in the state by 2021 to comply with the 2018 reauthorization of U.S. Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act. The update of the federal law, which sets standards for the care and custody of delinquent juveniles, calls for the removal of almost all juveniles from adult facilities.

Current state law allows for juveniles charged as adults and youthful offenders to be held in adult jails. Child welfare advocates could look at trying to amend the state law next legislative session.

Laura Broyles, program manager for OJA, said that jails are simply not set up to meet the needs of juveniles.

“They don’t always have the resources and the capacity to actually provide what these young people need,” Broyles said. “It actually puts the jail staff in a difficult position because they know they can’t provide the resources that they need.”

Jails provide less access to education, counseling and other services than juvenile facilities, said David McCullough, a program field representative for OJA, who is tasked with inspecting jails in the state that house juveniles.

Juveniles placed in adult jails are at higher risk for attempting suicide, and being sexually and physically assaulted by both staff and other inmates, McCullough said. Juveniles in adult facilities are also more likely to be held in isolation, he said.

At the meeting, McCullough showed a photograph of a typical county jail cell the size of a walk-in closet where as many as three juveniles can be held. There may be only one correctional officer at the jail on duty tasked with checking on juveniles at any one time he said.

“Juvenile pods are places of isolation,” McCullough said. “There’s growing awareness of this issue. Adult jail is not staffed to maintain supervision and interact with the kids.”

There are about 300 beds in juvenile detention centers across the state, said Rachel Holt, chief operating officer for OJA. Those centers are not considered OJA facilities, but are licensed through the agency and operated by individual counties.

As of Friday, Holt said, there were 34 beds available at Oklahoma County’s juvenile detention center and 22 open in Tulsa County.

The decision to place a youth in an adult jail rather than a juvenile facility often falls on a judge. In some cases, Holt said, juveniles are unlawfully placed in adult facilities.

Harmon County Associate District Judge Mike Warren, who is a member of OCCY’s board, said when new sheriffs and judges are elected, they haven’t had sufficient training on how to handle juveniles.

“We end up with kids here that are put in the wrong placement for too long and judges don’t even know it,” he said. The county is ramping up training for officials this year.

OCCY Assistant Director Mark James said the agency will form a task force, likely with members from several state agencies, to explore issues with adult jails that house juveniles across the state. The board will continue conversations on the issue at future meetings.

Related reading: 

Cell by Cell: A teenage suicide sheds light on a lack of oversight for juveniles in county jails