This paper reviews the history of the "Terry D." lawsuit in Oklahoma, filed in 1978, and its impact on juvenile corrections in that State.
Prior to the filing of the Terry D. suit in 1978, Oklahoma's juvenile justice system was "institutional based." The Terry D. suit was filed against Oklahoma's Department of Human Services by Legal Aid of Western Oklahoma, the National Center for Youth Law, and the National Prison Project of the American Civil Liberties Union, on behalf of a group of residents in Oklahoma's juvenile institutions. Terry D. was a juvenile in custody whose name happened to be the first on the list. The suit alleged that Oklahoma's institutions violated the constitutional rights of their residents. Specifically, it alleged that the facilities were located in isolated rural areas of the State where qualified staff could not be retained. It alleged that the number of staff available was not adequate and that staff were not adequately trained. It alleged that offenders and non-offenders were routinely mixed together. It also alleged that the institutions routinely used isolation and cruel and inhumane restraint practices. The suit's filing initiated a period of dramatic professional hostility. Still, the suit, which passed its 18th birthday in January 1996, spurred many improvements in community- based corrections that have provided alternatives to institutionalization. The suit offers a number of lessons for those who may find themselves involved in a similar lawsuit. A key observation is to not allow programs to become isolated. People and programs need the opportunity to be involved with their colleagues to ensure that professional growth continues. Another key lesson is that efforts should be made to ensure that communication channels are kept open during the process. Finally, those involved in a potential suit must keep their overall goals clearly established. Such goals should be directed toward the clients. Goal-directed work should help in reducing or eliminating the side issues that can obscure the real issues involved.
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