Juvie: Lost Time

FILE — Children judged delinquent must be evaluated at the Arkansas Juvenile Assessment and Treatment Center at Alexander (pictured above) before officially starting their sentences. Kids often sit in county detention centers for months waiting for an opening at Alexander.

As kids languish in lockups, rehabilitation chances fade

BY AMANDA CLAIRE CURCIO / Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

After 16-year-old Kristyn failed a drug test and ran away from home, the state jailed her for more than six months. Her expected sentence was three.

Teens like Kristyn are subject to a juvenile justice system that can extend their sentences for any rules infraction, or because necessary counseling isn’t available or because they have to wait in county youth jails until a state bed opens.

In Arkansas, judges can recommend sentences for young offenders, but the state’s Division of Youth Services decides how long the youths stay locked up. Half of other states handle sentencing differently.

On average, Arkansas youths in state custody spend 10.5 months incarcerated, an Arkansas Democrat-Gazette analysis of state data shows. This doesn’t include the weeks or months the youths wait in county detention.

More than 80 percent of incarcerated Arkansas youths — 402 children last year — are locked up for more than six months. By comparison, only a third of children in juvenile detention nationally stay that long, according to U.S. Justice Department data.

Experts consider more than six months of incarceration for most teens to be excessive and detrimental. The longer young people stay behind bars the harder it is for them to merge back into family and home life, and the more likely it is they will commit more crimes and return to incarceration, according to local and national experts.

In all, Kristyn served 191 days — six months and 11 days — for a drug problem. Like three-quarters of Arkansas’ imprisoned youths, she wasn’t a violent offender.

Kristyn spent at least three months of that time in one county lockup or another, where she did not receive drug abuse therapy or other services necessary for her to complete her sentence.

“I came out knowing more bad stuff, wanting to try new, bad things,” said Kristyn, now 17 and living in northeast Arkansas. “You meet a whole lot of bad influences. I’m sure I was a bad influence on a whole lot of other people.”

Arkansas’ system breeds hopelessness, say young offenders and the public defenders who represent them.

Click here to see the chart for all kids committed to the Division of Youth Services.

“Kids can’t reasonably be expected to indefinitely have a positive morale in the face of never-ending extensions of their sentences,” said Little Rock lawyer and youth advocate Amy Lafont.

And once teens are released, the state offers little in the way of support to help them readjust.

“The main thing to understand is what a flawed model incarceration is … and the level of trauma induced from behind bars,” said Joshua Rovner, a senior advocacy associate with the Sentencing Project, a Washington D.C.-based research nonprofit.

“The abuse by other prisoners, abuse by staff — that’s all the worst of it,” Rovner said.

“It’s not a successful model for a successful life. Even when there’s no abuse documented, it’s still traumatic.”

The trauma of incarceration also means lost opportunities to rehabilitate teens, say specialists in adolescent development.

Rovner acknowledged that incarceration makes sense for some young people, “who are threats to themselves or their families … but secure confinement needs to be as brief as possible.”

“The healthiest settings will mimic a family setting,” he said. “The largest settings will really be the worst places.”

Arkansas officials have embarked on an overhaul of the juvenile justice system that they say will reduce the amount of time children spend in county lockups and move them more quickly into the state’s juvenile treatment centers.

The overhaul plan also promises to tailor treatment to incarcerated youths’ specific needs, with the goal of cutting sentences. But officials haven’t provided clear guidance on how they’d keep those stays under six months for most children.


Kristyn and hundreds of other Arkansas youths wind up jailed far longer than original sentence expectations because state-mandated risk-assessment screening occurs at one location — the state’s largest youth prison, the Arkansas Juvenile Assessment and Treatment near the Little Rock suburb of Alexander.

The screening helps officials figure out individual needs for services such as anger management training, substance abuse counseling or mental health treatment.

But Alexander’s often overbooked, and youths can’t get in for weeks.

So Kristyn waited.

She spent 74 days in county facilities — first at Craighead County Juvenile Detention Center, then in Independence County.

Under Youth Services Division policy, that time behind bars didn’t count toward her sentence. Neither did the six days of testing at the Alexander center, nor the next two weeks waiting in Jefferson County’s youth jail for permanent placement.

Correction: An earlier version of this graphic listed an incorrect figure in the key.

State data show that, between 2008 and 2017, at least 458 youths similarly waited more than three months in county facilities. The data also show that 76 percent of committed Arkansas youths were jailed at least one month in county juvenile detention during the same period.

Finally, a bed opened for Kristyn at the state-managed Mansfield Juvenile Treatment Center, about 30 miles south of Fort Smith.

At Mansfield, she spent 97 more days actually serving her sentence.

Arkansas law allows circuit judges to hold adjudicated youths in county detention no longer than 90 days before transfer to the Alexander assessment center.

The Youth Services Division gets around the county lockup limit by transferring children approaching the 90-day mark from one county to another, said Dorcy Corbin, a Pulaski County juvenile public defender.

The division thus attempts to “buy more time” before having to send the child for assessment, Corbin asserted.

Department of Human Services representatives disputed the generalization that the state moves children from one county facility to another before screening. The Youth Services Division is part of the department.

“There are individual instances where an incident has occurred at the initial juvenile detention center placement that requires a move,” said Marci Manley, department spokesman.

Sometimes youths spend longer wait times in a county juvenile jail because their crimes, such as sex offenses, require going to a state youth prison with a specialized treatment program that is in “high demand,” said Amy Webb, another department spokesman.

Manley and Webb noted that the agency hopes to end its reliance on county juvenile detention centers. Youths will go straight to assessment from the courthouse, the same day they’re committed to the division by a judge, they said.

Even so, Corbin said, “the fact that the state routinely jails kids up to the maximum allowed time [in county lockups] is also wrong.”


Under Arkansas’ “indeterminate sentencing” law, incarcerated youths aren’t given release dates when they’re first sentenced. A youth must complete a long list of assigned goals before being allowed to go home.

The youth prison staff, using personal observation, decides whether those goals were met. Arkansas is among 24 states and the District of Columbia that use indeterminate sentencing.

Arkansas’ Youth Services Division, not a judge, unilaterally decides when to release a child. Similar agencies in 22 other states do the same.

Webb said that indeterminate sentencing allows the agency to focus on rehabilitation and not punishment, unlike the adult criminal system.

“Indeterminate sentencing acknowledges that kids have highly individualized needs that affect their relative risk for future re-offending,” she said.

As part of its effort to reduce incarceration time, the youth agency recently changed its policy from addressing all concerns that might have led to a young offender’s delinquent conduct to focusing only on those that need “immediate and intensive treatment,” Webb said.

But Lafont, the Little Rock attorney who represents youth offenders, said the state still holds too much power to keep children locked up.

“The juvenile code violates due process,” she said. “Kids are in the system for two years once adjudicated. Even if there is less time on paper, their time is extended. … They spend more time because they’re not perfect kids.”

The law makes it too easy for youth prison staffs to extend a child’s time for minor infractions, she said.

“One of my clients was hit with a 90-day extension by the state because he had a so-called major incident,” Lafont said. “’What was the major incident?’ I had asked. ‘Well,’ they told me, ‘the child had a pencil in the classroom after the pencils were supposed to go back to the teacher.’ His stay was extended three months.”

When Lafont asked for evidence about the incident from the Alexander lockup’s director, the Youth Services Division changed its decision, she said.

A consultant hired by the Youth Services Division recommended last year that the agency create clear sentencing limits and individualized treatment plans for youths, as well as stop lengthening kids’ sentences for minor infractions. Agency officials haven’t said how they’re going to do this.


A handful of states, such as Georgia, Missouri and Massachussetts, reduced long sentences for teens and children by using “step-down” facilities.

These look more like traditional homes and serve as supervised halfway houses for kids with help from counselors and therapists. There, for example, children practice returning to the community in increments by earning incentives, such as day passes for bowling or movies.

Some states also use other community placements, including therapeutic group homes or residential substance abuse treatment facilities, to move youths into less restrictive settings after they’ve served some time in a juvenile prison.

Peter Forbes, Massachusetts’ Department of Youth Services commissioner, said he believes his state’s increase in residential alternatives and community programs has meant that kids spend less time in hardened secure facilities and has cut the state’s recidivism rate.

Forbes has been with the agency since 1983 and was appointed director in 2013.

In 1993, nearly half of the youths discharged committed additional offenses within a year of their releases, according to agency records. In 2014, that went down to 26 percent.

The re-commitment rate in Arkansas in fiscal 2018 was 37 percent.

“It’s not like we have a perfect system. But it is very thoughtful, well laid out and well-resourced,” Forbes said. “We’re going to spend the money on these kids one way or the other. … The money is well spent when directed to them as kids.”

After reports in the 1960s revealed appalling conditions inside Massachusetts’ “training schools,” the state overhauled its juvenile justice system, said Sana Fadel, deputy director of the Citizens for Juvenile Justice, a Boston-based advocacy organization.

Massachusetts adopted a more community-based model, Fadel said. More funds went to cities to work with troubled youths. Juvenile lockups became smaller.

If jailed, kids were placed in facilities closer to home so parents could visit more often, and new group homes and step-down sites let kids earn privileges that allow them to re-integrate into their communities.

By contrast, Arkansas has limited options for troubled youths. The Youth Services Division doesn’t manage any step-down facilities and lacks other residential alternatives.

“We can get kids out of [lockups] earlier if they had more support afterwards,” said Bonnie Boon, director of Consolidated Youth Services Inc., a community-based provider of services such as sex offender treatment, GED programs and substance abuse counseling.

“But in a lot of places, that’s not the case,” Boon said. “There are no resources out here for these kids.”

Tom Montgomery, a West Memphis juvenile public defender, also said kids are incarcerated for long periods because of limited residential treatment options in many parts of the state, forcing circuit judges to rely on youth lockups.

“The only way we can get kids covered is to send them to the [Youth Services] division,” Montgomery said. “It’s like sending an adult to prison to get mental health services. That is what we have to deal with over here in the Delta.”

About half of the Youth Services Division’s annual budget pays for incarceration. The total fiscal 2018 budget was $45.8 million, about $617,000 more than fiscal 2014’s $45.2 million.

Since 2013, Arkansas has spent nearly $190 million on juvenile incarceration, including the cost of transporting kids from one lockup to another, state records show.

Community programs tend to cost about $75 a day, instead of $150 to $240 a day, the range of rates at Arkansas’ juvenile lockups.


State officials presented a plan in November to reduce incarceration, close two of the state’s seven treatment centers this year and divert funds to community-based programs instead.

Community-based providers, especially those who work with kids after they’re released from detention, worry that extra money won’t come soon enough, if at all.

“Funding of community-based youth services has remained mostly flat, despite wages and other costs to deliver services effectively doubling,” said Darryl Rhoda, president of Youth Bridge, a Fayetteville-based nonprofit that works with adjudicated children.

“The complexity of challenges facing our youth also seem to be increasing with each year,” Rhoda added.

Human Services Director Cindy Gillespie has said it’s too early to tell how much money will be saved by closing the lockups in Colt and Dermott.

FILE — Division of Youth Services Director Betty Guhman walks through a residential dorm at the Colt Juvenile Treatment Facility on Feb. 15, 2017.

She said improvements at the remaining youth prisons, including upgrades on obsolete locks that pose fire hazards, will cost about $1.8 million.

Still, those who have toiled in Arkansas’ juvenile justice system for decades applauded the sentencing component of the Youth Services Division’s overhaul plan.

The plan calls for limiting “length-of-stay recommendations” to recognize that “the effectiveness of treatment provided in institutional settings is diminished after six months.”

The plan also promises that treatment would progress in a timely manner so youths can “transition to a home setting as quickly as possible.”

Keesa Smith, a Human Services Department deputy director, said the Youth Services Division already has tweaked how it sentences children. It no longer sends kids back to county detention after they are assessed at the Alexander center, for example.

The department’s ultimate goal is to send kids straight from the courthouse to assessment and on to treatment centers, she said.

That idea isn’t new, and is one reason why some youth advocates are skeptical about Arkansas’ proposed improvements.

“In the late ’90s, we could send them straight to Alexander for assessment,” said David “Bubba” Powers, executive director of Southwest Arkansas Counseling and Mental Health Center. “That changed in the early 2000s when [the state] started contracting with the county juvenile detention centers. Some of that was from lobbying.”

Division documents promise these changes will be in place by June 2020.

Youth advocates also hope new legislation will lower youth incarceration and shorten sentences.

A new state law signed by Gov. Asa Hutchinson on Feb. 21 requires every child tried for a crime to receive a formal risk assessment before sentencing. Act 189 of 2019 also bans incarcerating children who commit misdemeanor offenses who are assessed as “low-risk.”

Sen. Missy Irvin, R-Mountain View, and Rep. Charlene Fite, R-Van Buren, co-sponsored the bill that became the law. Senate Bill 152 was drafted by the joint panel of the Arkansas Supreme Court Commission on Families, Youth and Children and the governor’s Youth Justice Reform Board.

Faulkner County Circuit Judge Troy Braswell, who leads the reform board, said the law will help officials “focus on tougher cases — the kids with higher risk, higher need.”


Melinda Azlin tries to visit her son at the state’s Mansfield lockup at least twice a month. He’s been there since September.

She hoped he’d be home for Christmas, but officials pushed back his estimated three-month sentence to March, and then again to May.

Jimmy, 15, was sent to Mansfield after stealing a cellphone and later cursing at a school bus driver and testing positive for marijuana.

Since beginning his sentence, Jimmy has been assaulted by other inmates so many times, his mother said, she fears the next call will inform her he’s landed in the hospital.

His encounters with the guards also worry her. In November, he was shackled overnight for pounding on a door to get their attention. Jimmy feared the other teens in his living quarters were going to fight him, said Azlin.

Youth Services Division records indicate that Jimmy’s outlook has deteriorated since arriving at the facility.

He “doesn’t care if he has to stay … until he is 21,” and he’s convinced he’ll be thrown back in jail as soon as he gets out, his case manager wrote in a Jan. 15 email to Azlin.

His case manager said she believed Jimmy needed to stop “resisting treatment” in order to make progress.

After a recent visit, Azlin cried during most of the 140-mile drive home to Benton.

“I saw how depressed he was. I just want him to get the mental health help he needs,” she said. “He’s only gotten worse.”



Arkansas shields public access to juvenile court records and other information about what goes on in its youth prisons.

For this article and for others still in progress, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reporter Amanda Claire Curcio spoke to more than a dozen once-incarcerated Arkansas teenagers and their parents. She also interviewed dozens of national and local youth justice experts, child welfare advocates, circuit judges, attorneys, and current and former state employees.

Social media and people working within the juvenile justice system helped Curcio find parents and children who wished to talk about their experiences with youth incarceration.

Curcio analyzed seven years of sentencing data from the Arkansas Division of Youth Services, and collected and reviewed hundreds of pages of law-enforcement records, court documents, inspections and audits pertaining to the state’s juvenile justice system and youth lockups.

The last names of children in this project have been excluded to protect their identities as minors.

Support for Curcio’s reporting on this project also came from the Fund for Journalism on Child Well-Being, a program of the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism at the University of Southern California.

* The Arkansas Division of Youth Services fiscal 2018 budget was $45.8 million. An earlier version of this story stated an incorrect 2018 figure.