Advocates responsible for overhauling the state's juvenile-justice system will focus on changing how children are sentenced, incarcerated and supported by community programs in a legislative proposal for 2019.
On April 27, members of the Arkansas Supreme Court Commission on Children, Youth and Families and the Youth Justice Reform Board -- the two groups merged last year -- voted to move forward with a "reform packet" intended to reach lawmakers next session.
The vote comes after years of discussion by the two groups about how best to serve Arkansas youths who find themselves in the juvenile-justice system. The effort began as an undercurrent years ago, but it's grown, and advocates have become increasingly vocal.
Arkansas still locks up more children than most states, when accounting for population, according to recent data. The trend is costly, with expenses running up to $87,000 per child in a year, using 2017 state records -- roughly $238 a day.
And because the state's court system is not standardized, the way children are punished for similar types of crimes depends on where they live and which judge they see.
"There have been a lot of conversations among who's been in juvenile justice," said Faulkner County Circuit Judge Troy Braswell. "We were finally tired of having the same old conversations.
"At the end of the day, everyone in the room wants the same thing," he continued. "We want kids to have opportunities, to be rehabilitated, to get back on the path. We don't want kids to come back into the system. Everyone understands the time is now."
Braswell led the Youth Justice Reform Board and now directs the joint panel's working group that will oversee the legislative proposal.
In Faulkner County, Braswell emphasizes the idea of diversion -- meaning sending troubled youths to programs that can help them rather than placing them behind bars. Between 2015 and 2017, his court saw 47 percent fewer juvenile detentions. The youths who were locked up spent less time in jail, and reoffending dropped by a third.
Braswell says that the legislative proposal's "details need to be hammered out" and it's still too early to offer many specifics. Rather, joint panel members were deciding the set of principles that will guide how the legislative proposal is drafted.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson attended the meeting and expressed support for the panel's mission.
The panel approved the following concepts as it proceeds with drafting its legislative proposal:
• Juvenile sentencing is to be restructured by having court employees formally assess children before they're punished, which allows officials to identify contributing factors such as mental health, family history and drug abuse. More money will be directed to juvenile officers and data collection so the effort can have long-reaching effects.
• The juvenile-court system will be consistent throughout the state.
• Community-based programs that help youths after they leave lockup will receive more money to improve data collection efforts, deliver more effective services and work with courts and the state's Youth Services Division to reduce detention figures.
• Case management will be tailored to youths' individual needs and officials will develop short- and long-term plans to shift funding from "residential treatment" -- essentially placement at the state-run lockups -- to more cost-effective community programs.
The panel expects to cement more details in the coming months, said Rep. David Meeks, R-Conway, who belongs to the Supreme Court-appointed commission.
"You need to do the legwork before you get in the business of the actual session," Meeks said. "When you put a bill out there, especially major packets of legislation, you want to run it with support and not have to keep going over details."
Bills can be prefiled as early as mid-December. Meeks said a proposal should be ready by then, and he's anticipating support from other lawmakers.
"I think we all know there are some issues in the system that we need to work on," he said. "These are our youths who deserve a chance in life."
As of 2015, Arkansas had higher rates of juvenile incarceration than all but one Southern state, according to an analysis of federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention data. The state committed 451 youths, ages 11 to 19, in fiscal 2017, the year running between July 1, 2016 and June 30, 2017.
During that time, 86 percent of Arkansas children in lockups had not committed violent offenses, according to state records. In the previous year, 91 percent were committed for nonviolent offenses. The national average hovered around 70 percent.
Many Arkansas children are incarcerated for reoffending -- 25 percent and 34 percent in the past two years, state records show.
There are other disparities, noted in the Youth Services Division's 2017 annual report. Jailed children more likely came from southeast Arkansas, where judges jailed more youths than those in other areas, including more populated urban centers, such as Little Rock. And nearly half of all juvenile confinements were black boys, yet they make up only about 20 percent of the state's total adolescent population.
Some advocates say that the approved principles don't properly address the state of conditions at existing juvenile-detention facilities.
"There needs to be some focus in reform about what goes on in the institutions, with their treatment and education," said Madelyn Keith, director of East Arkansas Youth Services, a Marion-based community provider. "They're not always being treated as people there. I don't think they're getting what they need."
For the past four years, inspectors from nonprofit Disability Rights Arkansas continued to find instances of neglect and abuse at the state's seven youth lockups. Reports from the watchdog group say that teens held there aren't receiving adequate schooling and therapy, have been subjected to the use of restraints when they're not needed and live in subpar conditions.
Funding also remains a significant concern.
Rich Huddleston, executive director of Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families, worries that lawmakers will only redirect existing funds within the state's budget, rather than give extra money to the Youth Services Division, which he said would be needed to enact certain changes. The agency's revenue has been stagnant for years.
The fiscal 2019 budget allotted $27.6 million of the youth agency's $49 million budget to state-run juvenile-detention facilities. Only $16.9 million went to community services, which only partially funds programs that help kids re-entering society after serving their time.
"Meaningful reform requires more money on the front-end," Huddleston said. "We need a stronger commitment... The reform process would be more seamless if there was additional money. That's the one thing that is missing. But even with that, it's a good first start."
A Section on 05/11/2018