Two teenagers broke out of a state-run youth lockup last week, prompting officials to fire one of the jail's supervisors.
The boys were detained at the Lewisville Juvenile Treatment Center when they disappeared at 8:30 p.m. Aug. 21. Sheriff's deputies found them at 9 a.m. the next day walking along a rural road, not long after they apparently burglarized a small church, authorities said. No injuries were reported during the escape.
The Department of Human Services decided to fire the supervisor after learning he had "failed to follow procedures" and sent the teens "unsupervised across the campus," said Amy Webb, an agency spokesman.
A statement prepared by the Lafayette County sheriff's office details the getaway.
Deputies and state Division of Youth Services staff had combed the vicinity of the Lewisville facility for nearly five hours, unable to find the 16- and 17-year-olds.
A tip called in the following morning led investigators to the two missing teens, who were spotted walking along a remote section of road in the rural outskirts of Lewisville, 7½ miles directly -- or 14 miles if traveling via the county highways -- from the jail.
The boys were apprehended without incident, but they now face charges of escape, criminal mischief and burglary. During their time on the run, authorities said, the teens took undisclosed "items" from Cross Roads Baptist Church, which sits, mostly encircled by fields thick with trees, a stone's throw from where they were found.
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On Wednesday, the 8th Judicial Circuit prosecuting attorney's office could not confirm whether the boys would be charged as adults. Webb said they have been relocated to a more secure, county-run juvenile detention center, but their placement "will be determined at a later date."
The incident is at least the second successful escape reported from the Lewisville facility since 2016. The Human Services Department did not notify the media of the missing teens.
Lewisville is one of seven state-operated youth lockups that will be returned to private control sometime next year.
The centers had been operated by nonprofits for two decades before Gov. Asa Hutchinson directed the Human Services Department to take over their operation in January after a bidding process on a new contract went awry.
Earlier this month, the department fired the director of a state-run juvenile jail in Harrisburg after a string of recent escapes that occurred under his watch.
The Lewisville director will stay, though -- because the latest escape was not a "systematic failure," Webb said.
Between 2012 and 2017, there were at least 39 separate escapes from secure juvenile treatment sites in Arkansas.
Four occurred at the Harrisburg Juvenile Treatment Center this year. Two Mansfield juvenile correctional facilities had four escapes each -- the girls' program in 2014 and the boys' in 2015. Facilities usually report no more than two breakouts in a given year and can go years without an escape.
Webb said the Lewisville center was "properly staffed" at the time of the escape; 19 youths were confined at the 28-bed facility.
However, in a January report, Disability Rights Arkansas, a federally empowered watchdog group, found that the Lewisville site, which had 32 employees at the time, lacked "adequate numbers of staff to provide direct care and supervision to youth."
Since the nonprofit's report, state officials said, Lewisville staffing has returned to 2016 numbers -- more like 45 employees.
Disability Rights Arkansas says 45 is still too low "given the size and needs of the residential population."
Earlier this month, the Human Services Department also rebuffed the idea that the Harrisburg lockup was understaffed when it was questioned about four recent escapes. City Police Chief Gary Hefner had suggested that the facility "tighten its security." The Harrisburg director was then fired.
Youth advocates acknowledge that escapes can be worrisome because youths might commit dangerous offenses.
But they also contend that more is at stake -- what happens after an escape could ensnare youths in "the system" for years. The state is allowed to keep them in long-term lockup or on juvenile probation until they are 21.
Dorcy Corbin, a longtime Arkansas juvenile public defender, said there is "significant potential" for youths to rack up additional charges when they flee from custody. For example, those escapees need food and have no money, Corbin said.
After an escape, officials then choose to extend the youth's time in confinement, which tends to increase the likelihood of "re-offending" in the future, she said.
The state's Administrative Office of the Courts does not track how long each youth is locked up or the rate of repeat offenses.
Arkansas does not have a unified court system, so at best, juvenile judges keep data differently, and in other cases, they maintain little information about sentencing and recidivism.
Most states do not track data that could show whether lengths of stay affected juvenile recidivism, according to the National Criminal Justice Reference Service, a federally sponsored program that supports research and policy development.
"It's not just about what they can do to 'us,' which is often how this issue is presented," Corbin added. "These children are vulnerable -- kidnapping, sex trafficking. Terrible things can happen to them."
Metro on 08/31/2017