MuskogeePhoenix.com, Muskogee, OK

Local News

March 2, 2014

Juvenile facility may face cuts

Law enforcers, prosecutors and others are being warned about proposed budget cuts that could undermine the mission set out for the Oklahoma Office of Juvenile Affairs.

OJA Executive Director T. Keith Wilson issued a letter in February outlining the impact of a 5 percent budget cut proposed by Gov. Mary Fallin. He said the cut would mean the loss of about $4.9 million from an agency that has seen its funding cut 12.5 percent, or $14 million, since 2010 to not quite $93.28 million.

OJA’s stated mission “is to provide professional prevention, education and treatment services ... for juveniles.” It also is charged with providing “secure facilities for juveniles in order to promote public safety and reduce juvenile delinquency.”

In his letter, which Muskogee County officials recently received, Wilson said the agency already has had “to close or limit many programs.” Among those closures were some juvenile shelters, group homes and intervention programs.

“We have not formulated a final plan at this time, but there will be no area that escapes the impact,” Wilson warned in his Feb. 12 letter. “Your detention centers are likely to lose beds or funds or both.”

Muskogee County Sheriff Charles Pearson said closing the juvenile detention centers, one of which is located here, “would be a big problem.” Pearson said depending on the extent of the potential closures, he could have to carve out space in an already crowded jail to accommodate juvenile offenders.

“We would have to do what we did in the old days: put up an insulated door and soundproof walls to separate them from the general population,” Pearson said. “It would be a big problem — we probably would have to pull one or two employees off the street.”

Pearson said the proposed OJA budget cuts could come at the expense of losing federal funds available for juvenile programs. He said that needs to be considered before state lawmakers approve any budget cuts for the agency.

Wilson states in his letter he is holding out hope the cuts do not materialize and that lawmakers will recognize the need for more increased appropriations. He said OJA staffing levels have fallen from 1,100 to fewer than 750. That number would dwindle further with a 5 percent budget cut.

Reach D.E. Smoot at (918) 684-2901 or dsmoot@muskogeephoenix.com.

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