Juvenile offenders, when incarcerated, are kept separate from adult offenders for obvious reasons. And the criminal justice process for juvenile offenders is also different than for adults. The whole premise for the juvenile justice set of laws is that juveniles are presumed to be able to be rehabilitated before they turn adults, and keeping them apart from those adults accused of crimes is part of the separation. Adults adjudged guilty of crimes are punished by simply locking them up in prison. Adult misdemeanants are kept in county jails to serve their sentences. Juvenile offenders are kept in juvenile facilities.
But the juvenile housing system is running out of room. Gene Christian, director of the Oklahoma Office of Juvenile Affairs, says “we’re going to run up against a brick wall”. The head of the Juvenile Justice Center, Associate District Judge Richard Kirby, recently moved about a dozen youthful offenders from the juvenile detention center to the Oklahoma County Jail, an adult facility. When this action was appealed, an appeals court ordered the teens back to the juveniles detention center, the population exceeded its 80-person capacity. That is the reason Judge Kirby ordered the youthful offenders out of the juvenile detention center.
The courts have required that the juvenile justice center maintain a ratio of one staff member per 10 teens during the day and one staff to 12 teens at night. Because not enough of these staff positions have remained filled, even though there is money to pay for more staff, not enough people want the jobs. The number of available beds for youthful offenders and juvenile delinquents has therefore had to be reduced. The system is supposed to be able to give youthful offenders a mix of punishment and rehabilitation. Both options are needed, Judge Kirby said. But, without the facilities to keep them, the juvenile justice system has had to simply “warehouse them in prison”, one official said.
The entire juvenile justice system is designed to turn youth who break the law away from a life of crime before it is too late. Isn’t that where we should put more of our public resources? The expense of housing lifetime criminals in prison is much more money and lives wasted.
There are 1.5 million people in prison in the United States today with another 750,000 in the jails of the nation. An increase of 192,000 prisoners is projected in the next five years nationally, and this will cost $27,500,000,000 to build and operate these additional prisons. Why not take these billions and spend them on a better-funded system of juvenile justice to keep as many of these juveniles from costing the country so much in housing dollars, apart from all other considerations?