Despite progress in recent years, Arkansas' youth justice system is still rife with problems, a new report shows -- namely, keeping kids locked up too long, even for misdemeanors; poor oversight; a lack of use-of-force training for officers; and insufficient data-keeping that prevents the best use of resources.
Many of the chronic problems outlined in the report have been frequently cited by watchdog groups, U.S. Department of Justice inspectors or Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reporting.
"There's nothing new," said Dorcy Corbin, longtime Pulaski County juvenile public defender. "It's a shame to see those issues haven't been taken care of -- the things we do to children in the name of justice."
Most kids are jailed for nonviolent offenses, the state's own data show; almost half of the children behind bars are there for committing misdemeanors. And even though black children, ages 10 to 17, make up 16 percent of Arkansas' youth population, nearly half of those committed are black.
The report came from the Center for Children's Law and Policy, a Washington, D.C.-based research group that has helped at least 30 states revamp their juvenile-justice systems. Grant dollars covered most of the state's $73,678 contract with the organization, which was hired in March by the Youth Services Division.
The center has worked in Arkansas before, specifically with Benton, Pulaski and Washington counties' Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative, an effort introduced by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, another national child-policy organization.
Arkansas Division of Youth Services reviewView
"Talking about the facilities, well, it's better than nothing," Corbin said, referring to the report. "But there are still a lot of unanswered questions."
Corbin, who said she had been hearing about the report for months, was curious why it made no mention of speaking to kids locked in the facilities -- since "that's how you learn what's really going on."
The report doesn't refer to occasions when guards were too rough with children, though past investigations show that guards have broken bones or hurt children through use of improper restraints.
Yet, it recommends that juvenile-jail workers receive de-escalation, crisis intervention, behavior management and use-of-force training "that spends the bulk of teaching time on de-escalation techniques."
Corbin also wonders whether Arkansas' juvenile-jailing numbers -- a 32 percent decrease since 2001, and at a decades-low record of 402 commitments in the past year -- went down because more children were being charged as adults, a concern she has been vocal about.
The reason we don't have answers to questions the report raises is because of poor data collection, Corbin said. The report echoes her concerns.
"An inability to track meaningful short- and long-term outcomes from youth exiting residential placement ... has left the state unable to engage in a cost-benefit analysis of current funding," it said.
The lack of data also limits how programs are developed and hinders determining whether treatment for youths is successful, the report found.
The Youth Services Division released the report Friday afternoon, saying it welcomed the "candid assessment" of how the state treated children committed to any of its eight youth jails, in a prepared statement.
"There are steps we as a state can take within the next year and within the next five years to considerably improve our residential treatment programs for youth in our care," said Betty Guhman, Youth Services director. "It won't be easy and it will take time, but we are committed to improving this system."
Guhman sits on the Youth Justice Reform Board, a 21-member legislatively-empowered group of advocates, social workers, judges, lawmakers, community providers and child-welfare experts. The board recently merged with the state Supreme Court's Commission on Children, Youth and Families, led by Justice Rhonda Wood.
During numerous board meetings, Guhman has stressed the importance of working with judges to divert kids from the system and to close some youth lockups. She said she wanted to direct the money currently set aside for incarceration back into the community, through evidence-based programs.
In fiscal 2017, the year ending June 30, 2017, almost half of the Youth Services Division's budget went to "residential treatment," or jailing kids -- about $27.5 million of its $60 million budget.
Agency funding has remained stagnant for years, and lawmakers most recently did not fulfill all of Guhman's funding requests.
The new report notes this expenditure, and recommends the state "make smarter and more strategic investments," such as focusing on fewer facilities, specifically ones that "hold the greatest potential to achieve a meaningful rehabilitative environment."
Kids spend too much time behind bars, the report also said a few times. There are delays in placement, "consuming expensive and scarce resources."
The center said the youth agency should set clear sentencing limits, create treatment plans that take into account children's individual strengths and needs, and avoid kicking them out for less than serious safety issues.
But the report notes that the agency has made strides in certain areas. For example, confined youths have expanded access to mental-health and behavioral-health services. And it's now easier for them to make up missing classes and to transfer credits back to their schools at home.
The report also commended Arkansas for running smaller facilities, rather than larger, more hardened institutional structures. At the same time, officials should place kids closer to home, the report stated.
The Youth Services Division has operated seven juvenile lockups since January 2017 and oversees a contract with a Nevada-based company that runs the state's central intake center for adjudicated youths near Alexander. Guhman said she hopes to return control of the seven facilities next year to private control.
In previous interviews, the director said that the results from this report would guide how state officials write their request for bids to run the seven sites. A spokesman for the Department of Human Services, which heads the division, could not immediately confirm whether the agency would begin writing a new bid request now that the report was completed.
A Section on 10/13/2018
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