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Youthful offenders filling Oklahoma County detention center

Young criminals and youths arrested on complaints of assault, burglary, rape and other crimes are staying longer and coming back more often to the Oklahoma County's juvenile detention center.
BY VALLERY BROWN Modified: November 1, 2010 at 6:27 am •  Published: November 1, 2010

Young criminals and youths arrested on complaints of assault, burglary, rape and other crimes are staying longer and coming back more often to the county's juvenile detention center.

An average of about 70 youthful offenders are locked up at the Oklahoma County Juvenile Detention Center daily. They range in age from 9 to 17 years old and are held in the basement of a building across from the Chesapeake Energy campus.

The center's third-quarter report indicated about 60 percent had been there at least once before.

"You see kids grow up here," said Wendy Zaragoza, operations supervisor at the center. "Literally."

Unauthorized use of a motor vehicle, burglary, domestic abuse and other complaints resulted in nearly 400 juveniles entering the center in the first quarter of this year, records show. But juvenile court judges' orders to detain and bench warrants were more frequently reasons behind their detention.

"These are prior offenders," said William Sweat, the facility's administrator. "They're still kids, but some with past crimes and a history of problems."

Juveniles also are tending to stay in detention longer. In two years, the average length of stay has gradually increased from 15 to 16 days. While more youths overall stayed from 1 to 15 days, nearly 20 percent stayed for a month or more during the most recent reporting period. That's compared with 15 percent during the fiscal year that ended in June.

Lawrence Hicks, juvenile bureau director, said crimes the youths are brought in for are increasing in severity and so are the corresponding sentences. Many violate probation terms.

"We definitely have a gang problem around here," Hicks said. "I think that's why we are seeing worse crimes and longer sentences."

Often the wait to be transferred to a state detention center is as long as 45 days, Sweat said. Many also are financially unable to post bail and get out of jail because the crimes are more severe.

What's lockup like?

Like adult inmates, youth offenders live in small cells with hard concrete floors and heavy steel doors. Windows allow in natural light but not a view of the outside world.

They sleep on thin bedrolls with a single blanket. A few personal hygiene items are allowed. The juveniles also are able to have books if they behave.

Juveniles who follow the rules and stay out of trouble progress through a system that gives them more freedom of movement, privileges and low-top black sneakers instead of inmate sandals.

Those who fight and resist the regulations of the institution are put in a sanctions unit where they are kept in their cells more often and have less freedom than those in the general population.

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Oklahoma County Juvenile Detention Center

June 2008 to July 2009

• 62: Average daily population

• 15.06 days: Average stay

• 16: Median age

• 1,793: Total population

• 79 percent: Previously detained one or more times (recidivism)

July 2009 to June 2010

• 72: Average daily population

• 15.29 days: Average stay

• 16: Median age

• 1,612: Total population

• 40 percent: Previously detained one or more times (recidivism)

July 2010 to September 2010 (first quarter)

• 69: Average daily population

• 15.98 days: Average stay

• Median age: 16

• Total population: 398

• 58 percent: Previously detained one or more times (recidivism)

Source: Oklahoma County Juvenile Detention Center

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