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Okla. juvenile detention centers overcrowded, underfunded

Comanche County_Oklahoma juvenile detention centers are overcrowded, and it's so bad that the State Director of Juvenile Affairs was held in contempt of court in May because he failed to relocate juveniles from state centers to group homes.  Director Gene Christian says he didn't move them because there is nowhere for the juveniles to be housed.  He says that if the state juvenile facility reaches capacity, local centers won't be able to handle the overflow because they also are overcrowded.

Despite the fact that the rates for juvenile crimes are down, the rates of juveniles committing violent crimes are staggering, which means more must serve time.  However, there isn't any room left to detain them, since too many violent teens occupying the beds at Oklahoma juvenile detention centers have left the system at capacity.

Regional Juvenile Detention Center Director Rick Lowe says there's a long waiting list.  "There's a waiting list for them [the centers], and a waiting list for the waiting list for kids to go to those group homes, too," he said.  "Those kids have traditionally been more of the property offenders, but even with the backlog we're seeing at the institution, more and more kids who have done crimes against persons are going to homes too."

Lowe says that right now, there are two ways of dealing with the overcrowding.  "The only answer is to build more facilities, or decide these kids can be placed in the community," he said.  What this means is that less violent offenders - who really should be in a detention center - are instead sent to group homes.  But, detention centers are also overcrowded, which means the least violent offenders are just sent back home - essentially ending up back on the streets.  "It comes down to an issue of public safety," said Lowe.  "OJA (Oklahoma Juvenile Affairs) is going to have to be confident that a young person doesn't pose an undue risk.  Courts are going to have to be comfortable with that as well."

What is the solution?  CCRJDC Superintendent Richard McDonald says it's simple - more money.  "The only solution is we're going to have to have more beds state wide to take care of it."  However, state legislators have to appropriate funds, and they won't be back in session until February.  "Building it [a detention center] is actually the cheap part," said Lowe.  "It's operating those on a 24-hour basis, 365-days-a-year, that the money actually starts to pile up."

Even if OJA gets the needed state funds, Lowe says it will still take years to fix the problem.  "There will not be any solutions until some time next year, if then," he said.  "Even once the money's appropriated, it takes time to build a facility and get it online."  Officials are trying to come up with other solutions, such as adding onto existing facilities instead of building brand new centers, but they still need additional funding to do so. 

The Department of Juvenile Affairs has been meeting with legislators about overcrowding for years, but the problem is the lack of resources to fund expansion.  That funding is not built into the budget.

Count on 7News to keep you updated on their progress.

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