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story.lead_photo.caption Graph showing the Proposed youth services division budget - Photo by Arkansas Democrat-Gazette / SOURCE: The governor’s budget

Stagnant funding for the state's youth services agency poses challenges for advocates who seek to overhaul Arkansas' juvenile justice system by moving away from jailing youths.

The governor's proposed budget for fiscal 2019, which begins July 1, gives the Division of Youth Services' general revenue fund $49.1 million, just a $407,000 increase over this fiscal year.

A hefty chunk of the division's money would maintain the status quo -- $27.6 million is allotted for residential treatment during fiscal 2019, the same as this fiscal year.

About $16.9 million would fund community services, the same amount authorized in fiscal 2018. The youths agency had requested nearly $19 million this year.

Up to $712,000 in federal incentive block grants for the agency is pending reauthorization by Congress.

Juvenile justice activists have lobbied for a shift in policy, hoping to see the agency move funds to community-based providers rather than continue to focus on youth lockups.

Youth advocates say that buoying local programs to help at-risk children before they offend or after they get out of jail will lower incarceration and recidivism rates among young Arkansans and maybe even lower the adult criminal system population. They also say that confining most youths for longer than a few months does more harm than good.

"There has to be a local approach to helping troubled youths," said Toyce Newton, president of Phoenix Youth and Family Services, a long-standing community provider in southeast Arkansas.

"What does the 'lock 'em up' approach, in the whole scheme of things, get us? Does it work? Does it increase education? Does it help families? It doesn't. It flies in the face of what actually builds communities."

Betty Guhman, director of the Youth Services Division, says a sea change is coming to Arkansas and has perhaps already arrived. Guhman said she's also laying the groundwork to revamp how the state manages its seven youthful offender lockups.

As a sign of progress, she points to numbers contained in the division's annual report, which noted a 14 percent drop in the number of youths confined in the agency's residential centers.

In fiscal 2017, Arkansas jailed 451 youths, ages 11-19, down from fiscal 2015, when 526 youths were jailed, according to the report.

Nearly half of the juvenile confinements last fiscal year were male and black, although black, male youths make up only about 20 percent of the state's total adolescent population.

The agency's report also showed that it was more likely that a jailed child came from southeast Arkansas, where judges sent more youths to lockups than did judges from other areas, including more-populated urban centers such as Little Rock.

The numbers exclude children held in county-run lockups or adult jails.

Marq Golden, an assistant director at the youth agency, theorized that the overall drop in confinements, at least in part, was because of lower incidents of school-related arrests and referrals to juvenile court.

Golden and other agency staff members have previously expressed concerns about how many juvenile cases stemmed from the schools.

During the 2013-14 academic year, 557 Arkansan children were arrested at schools and 1,191 were referred to the juvenile court system, according to U.S. Department of Education figures.

Family in Need of Services cases also dropped statewide, according to state Administrative Office of the Courts records. In 2005, 7,686 cases were filed statewide. That dropped to 5,086 in 2015.

Family in Need of Services is a legal avenue for children and their parents to get certain services, such as counseling. It is often used for status offenses, laws that apply only to children, such as truancy.

These proceedings are not standardized, and some judges have ordered children detained if court-offered services were rejected.

The decrease in such cases was not uniform, records show. Saline, Drew and Phillips counties all have seen Family in Need of Services cases more than double between 2005 and 2015.

Numbers are difficult to compare county to county and year to year because some jurisdictions include truancies in those Family in Need of Services cases and others do not.

The state's declining juvenile detention numbers follows a nationwide trend. The rate of jailed youths in the U.S. fell 44 percent between 2007 and 2015, according to Annie E. Casey Foundation data. The foundation focuses on the welfare of children, often through watchdog efforts and grants to government agencies and private groups.

But Arkansas' detention numbers by race continue to affect black children more than other races, bucking a national trend toward narrowing that disparity.

The Youth Services Division has been working with local judges on the issue of "Disproportionate Minority Contact" -- the rates of contact with the juvenile justice system among youths in minority groups -- in Pulaski, Jefferson, Sebastian and Crittenden counties for the past three years, said Carmen Mosley-Sims, division assistant director.

"It's easy to identify the disparity," Mosley-Sims said. "It's harder to identify the why."

Guhman said it will take more time, likely years, to reframe mindsets that surround the juvenile justice system and develop new plans.

She was tapped to lead the division, which falls under the purview of the Department of Human Services, in September 2016.

Her top priorities include reducing youths' sentences, called "lengths of stay," and ensuring that children are placed in the facility or program that best meets their needs.

Guhman also wants to focus on helping communities by directing resources to local efforts.

The proposed 2019 budget includes a renewal of last year's total of $1.85 million in innovation grants geared toward improving services for families and children involved in the juvenile justice system. A dozen nonprofits scattered across the state, covering 24 of 28 judicial districts, received such grants.

"There is change," the director said. "It takes a huge effort for us to shift money out of set institutions. ... We are going to step back a little bit, take a hard look at what we are doing."

'BETTER RESULTS'

Residential treatment -- locking kids up -- is expensive.

In fiscal 2017, the state spent as much as $87,000 per child -- roughly $238 a day, according to state records. It cost the Arkansas Department of Correction an average of nearly $60 a day to house one adult inmate.

In addition to the $26.7 million intended for residential treatment in the proposed budget, a portion of the agency's $6.5 million for administrative costs includes the operation of seven residential treatment centers for youths who committed serious offenses.

Some juvenile justice advocates hope these numbers can persuade fiscally conservative policymakers to rethink how Arkansas youths are sentenced.

"Funding community services on the front-end will save us money in the long-run," said Dorcy Corbin, a longtime juvenile public defender.

"Locking kids away is not effective. We need to reform the thought process in how we treat juveniles, because in the end we will have better results."

Corbin is involved with Pulaski County's newly adopted Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative, first developed by the Casey Foundation. The effort helps officials figure out ways to avoid locking up low-risk youths before their court hearings.

Another initiative -- termed by judges as a "game-changer" -- also seeks to lower the juvenile incarceration rate and save money by interviewing troubled youths before they are sentenced. The risk-assessment program recently expanded to additional counties.

The effort, first tried in Pulaski, Faulkner, Crittenden and Craighead counties two years ago, expanded to Benton, Garland, Jefferson and Lincoln counties between January and September 2017. Ashley, Chicot, Pope, Sebastian and Washington counties have already begun the risk-assessment training. Additional counties will start using the assessment later this year.

The risk assessment offers a more complete picture of a child -- such as mental health, family history, drug use, behavioral issues and other factors -- prior to punishment. Proponents of the initiative say results from the screening may deter judges from doling out cookie-cutter sentences. There is no uniform method in how youths are assessed when they enter the juvenile justice system.

The initiative was launched by the Youth Justice Reform Board, a 21-member panel directed by the Legislature to reshape Arkansas' juvenile justice system after separate investigations found instances of abuse and misconduct at the state's youth centers. The board recently merged with the Arkansas Supreme Court's Commission on Children, Youth and Families.

Other juvenile justice advocates say communities need to press lawmakers and the governor to see significant change in how the youth agency is funded.

"You'd need to see a grass-roots movement from parents," said Richard Huddleston, executive director of Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families.

Huddleston said he was encouraged by Guhman's "stable leadership -- something that has been missing for five years."

"We're also starting to see change amongst some of the judges," he added. "But there is only so much you can do with the same amount of small money you have."

LOOKING AHEAD

Guhman says bringing in an outside group specializing in residential treatment to run the lockups will improve outcomes for confined youths.

That's why the agency plans to hire a consultant to complete an "in-depth study" of the centers, she told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

That study will look at "our population, trends -- substance abuse, are they high-risk or low-risk, for example," she said.

The evaluation will allow division staff members to write a more articulate request-for-proposal to run the facilities, ultimately giving Arkansas better choices, she added.

The director did not provide further details about the consultant's contract or when the new bidding process is now expected to begin.

Tom Masseau, who leads Disability Rights Arkansas, a watchdog group with federal authority to monitor the state's centers, worries that this review process will not be enough to ensure that changes occur with residential treatment.

"How is the division going to ensure that the contract is followed?" Masseau asked. "The vendors will be treated like baby sitters. Treatment, education is all conducted by the state. They're not giving total control to the vendor. So who do we hold accountable?"

Guhman and other Youth Services Division leaders have described the agency's unexpected takeover of the seven youth lockups as a hiccup.

The Department of Human Services took control of the facilities last January under the direction of Gov. Asa Hutchinson, after lawmakers rejected a new $160 million contract to run the sites intended for an Indiana-based firm called Youth Opportunity Investments LLC.

Two Arkansas nonprofits that used to operate the sites -- some for nearly two decades -- twice challenged the state's bidding and selection process in awarding that contract. Their proposals were less-expensive than Youth Opportunity Investments: a daily $147-per-bed rate instead of $232.

During an August news conference, Hutchinson announced that the seven lockups would be privatized in 2018. The new bidding process was set to begin in December; officials were expected to select one or more vendors by March; and the new operators would take over administration of the lockups in July.

But that timeline has come to a stop until the consultant completes the review.

Guhman envisions changing some of the lockups into different types of facilities offering specific programs; thus, youths get more suitable treatment plans. Some facilities could be less-restrictive, saving the state money. The review would include looking at other juvenile treatment programs nationwide.

"This is part of what the governor wanted us to do," she said. "He wanted us to take a hard look at what we are doing ... to use data and have a rational approach."

SundayMonday on 01/21/2018

Print Headline: Youths-jail druthers hit budget snag

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