Gov. Kevin Stitt signed a bill Monday to protect children 12 years of age or younger from being placed in a state juvenile detention facility unless all alternatives have been exhausted and the child is charged with an offense that would be classified as a felony if committed by an adult.

House Bill 1282, authored by State Rep. Mark Lawson, R-Sapulpa, was a request by the Office of Juvenile Affairs. It also sets limits for 13- and 14-year-olds admitted to detention. The bill is part of an overall reform of the state’s juvenile justice system.

It passed both chambers of the Legislature with unanimous consent.

“This bill requires the state to seek other alternatives for these children who commit adult crimes but who are much too young to be placed in detention facilities,” Lawson said. “They would only be placed in a juvenile center if no other alternative can be found for them and if their crime warrants such detention.”

Sen. David Rader, R-Tulsa, was Senate author of the bill.

“We know Oklahoma leads the nation in adverse childhood experiences, and detaining our children can contribute to these negative experiences that can have lifelong effects on our youth,” Rader said. “Now is the time to reform our state’s justice system, and ensuring our children are not placed in a detention facility when there are better alternative options available is an important first step.”

Lawson and OJA agreed that detention contributes to a child’s adverse childhood experiences, which can have a lasting and negative effect on a person throughout their lifetime. Oklahoma children have the highest rates of ACEs in the nation.

HB 1282 also requires OJA to pay 100% of the cost for any child in OJA custody awaiting an OJA placement bed. OJA currently pays 85% of the operating cost for every contracted bed, which historically has led to high wait times. The additional cost can be paid through unencumbered funds reserved for such expenses, according to OJA.

Lawson said he’s worked with OJA to ensure young children have different treatment options than just detention with the goal of restoring these children to normal life as quickly as possible and reducing the chance they end up in the justice system for life.

He applauded the agency for its work to adjudicate juveniles more quickly, to allow them to receive services closer to home and to decrease the length of stay in the state’s care. Lawson said these changes have resulted in fewer detention beds being needed in the state.

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