Pulaski County plans to track kids' offense rates

Panel also looking at ways to reduce arrests at school

Pulaski County youth advocates will track whether children stay out of trouble after getting entangled in the juvenile justice system -- a change they say will offer insight on how to help at-risk kids and spend public dollars more wisely.

Most juvenile courts across Arkansas lack a standard way to measure youthful repeat offenders, which makes it difficult to ascertain the success of court-prescribed services, such as juvenile probation, mediation, teen court and other alternative programs.

But for Pulaski County, that changed Monday when people involved with the county's juvenile justice system agreed to define youth recidivism and to begin formally tracking it.

Now, in order to be considered a recidivist, a youth must be convicted of an additional offense within three years of committing the first crime.

The vote, approved unanimously, was just one part of the county's Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative working group meeting held in Little Rock. The initiative was founded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a national youth advocacy and research group, in 1992. About 300 jurisdictions across the U.S. participate. Benton and Washington counties joined the effort six years ago.

"How we define recidivism matters," Dorcy Corbin, a longtime public defender at the meeting.

If defined incorrectly, there would be a "skewed picture of how well Pulaski juvenile services work," Corbin said.

Before the group voted, she suggested expanding the time frame included in the definition, so that officials would look at youths' records for 24 or 36 months, instead of 12 months as proposed by Circuit Judge Wiley Branton.

Corbin said juvenile courts weren't tracking adjudications or re-offenses. Intake officers could individually look up whether a certain youth had previous charges, but there was no real sense of how many keep coming back, she said.

Pulaski County joined the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative after its juvenile justice system was reviewed by the Center for Children's Law and Policy last year. The $18,000 assessment focused on the county's juvenile justice system and its 48-bed juvenile detention center.

The national organization found that there was a drop in the county's overall juvenile incarceration rate -- Pulaski County jailed around 570 youths last year, a 50 percent reduction from 2010, for instance -- and that the county still could make significant improvements.

According to the report, in 2016:

• One-third of youths were released within three days, raising the question of whether these children were ever a threat to public safety and should have been locked up at all in the first place.

• About 54 percent of children jailed at the Pulaski County Juvenile Detention Center were there for violating probation -- "a percentage that is among the highest that we have seen in our work on juvenile justice reform."

• At least 42 percent of detention admissions were youths charged with misdemeanor offenses.

• School-based arrests represented at least 41 percent of youth arrests by the Little Rock Police Department.

• A lack of stakeholder collaboration prevented the county from taking advantage of funding that could go to additional resources and programs.

• Incomplete data muddied an understanding of how the juvenile justice system functioned.

Relevant information wasn't shared among agencies.

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Since the report's release in June 2017, Pulaski County adopted several recommended changes.

The county joined the detention alternatives initiative, for example. It formed a working group, composed of juvenile court judges, public defenders, prosecutors, educators and school administrators, police officers and juvenile detention staff and local advocates, that meets monthly.

Juvenile officers also use a screening tool that assesses the risk factor of an arrested youth; those with lower risk levels are released on electronic monitoring instead of being jailed.

The juvenile detention center discontinued its policy of a 24-hour lockdown, and the children held there now wear khaki pants and polo shirts instead of orange jumpsuits.

The juvenile jail also now offers more services, such as animal therapy, weekly yoga sessions, classes that cover topics such as financial literacy and stress management, gardening activities, and small classical music performances sponsored by ACANSA, an Arkansas-based arts organization.

Chastity Scifres, chief deputy Pulaski County attorney, said she hopes to expand the new services at the jail, but the county needs more volunteers first.

During Monday's meeting, the panel also discussed strategies to lower school-based arrests.

In August, out of 28 school-based arrests, 13 took place at J.A. Fair High School, located in southwest Little Rock, Scifres said Monday. McClellan High, on Geyer Springs Road, reported six school-related arrests the same month; Central High had one, she said.

By comparison, 32 arrests of all Pulaski County youths occurred in residential areas and 21 were at shopping malls or retail stores during that time, Scifres added.

J.A. Fair recently began participating in a mediation progam that serves as a diversion to arrest. School resource officers there have also been debriefed about the initiative.

"There's a willingness and propensity to pursue alternatives to arrests at the school," said Angelia Tolbert, a mediator and arbitrator working with the school's staff, resource officers and students.

Tolbert said the mediation program she leads at J.A. Fair is "doing very intensive work on campus."

"We work with student advocates who can talk to their peers who are being bullied, and we can help prevent fights from happening," she said.

Scifres said the county applied for a $20,000 grant from the state's Division of Youth Services to open a similar program at McClellan.

The grant would also go to crisis management training for workers and the creation of a One Circle Foundation Boys Council that aims to improve boys' school engagement and social skills.

Metro on 09/11/2018

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