In 1991, The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette published an article on the state’s juvenile justice system bearing the ominous headline “Stacked in centers, youths in trouble fall through the cracks.” The story also featured comments from a consultant, who said – two years prior – “too many youths who could better be served in community-based treatment were being inappropriately and unnecessarily held in state confinement.”
Over the next seven years, matters only worsened for the state’s juvenile justice system. In 1998, The Democrat-Gazette published a five-part series entitled “Juvenile Justice: The War Within” detailing the failings of the state’s juvenile incarceration sites. Three years after the series was published, two juveniles at the Alexander Youth Services Center – the state’s largest juvenile incarceration facility – committed suicide within a span of six months. A year later, the Civil Rights Division of the United States Department of Justice conducted an investigation of the facility, determining that the conditions at Alexander were so substandard that the constitutional rights of detained youth were being violated.
By 2007, state officials decided it was time to completely overhaul Arkansas’ juvenile justice system, culminating with the enactment of state Senate Resolution 31, which authorized a comprehensive study with the intent of reducing “reliance on large juvenile correctional facilities” within the state.
Five years later, however, Arkansas has seen a drastic reduction in juvenile commitment rates – as well as average time of incarceration for youths – after the implementation of several reform policies, which emphasize community based treatment alternatives to residential lockup. According to several analysts and activists, Arkansas’ system overhaul could be the wave of the future in dealing with juvenile justice matters, especially considering the limited budgetary resources for many states.
Earlier this year, a report entitled Arkansas Youth Justice: The Architecture of Reform was released, analyzing the state’s successes in implementing sweeping juvenile justice reform measures. The report — co–authored by Pat Arthur, a former senior attorney at the National Center for Youth Law, and Christopher Hartney, a senior researcher at the National Council on Crime and Delinquency – notes that since a series of reform plans were introduced in 2008, a number of Arkansas’ longstanding juvenile justice ailments have considerably lessened.
According to the new report, commitments to state custody in Arkansas have decreased almost 20 percent over the last four years, with the average length of stay for juveniles in residential treatment programs declining from 216 days in 2008 to an average of just 175 in 2011 – a reduction of almost 19 percent. Additionally, the report finds that the number of beds at the Arkansas Juvenile Assessment and Treatment Center – which was formerly called the Alexander Youth Services Center – has decreased by 30 percent, currently housing 100 beds as opposed to 143 four years ago.
Perhaps most noteworthy, however, is the drastic decrease in the state’s rate of “dual jurisdiction” commitments to detainment facilities. In 2009, the report finds that approximately 60 juveniles who were also wards of the state were incarcerated in detention centers – a rate that dropped by almost 75 percent in 2011, with only 16 documented “dual jurisdiction” detainees within the state. The report also says that recommitments have dropped considerably since 2006, with the rate of recidivism plummeting by 27.8 percent by 2009. An additional 15 percent drop was noted in the report, covering a time span of 2009 to 2011.
Isami Arifuku, a senior researcher at the National Council on Crime & Delinquency, helped conceptualize the project, as well as examine the report’s preliminary data.
“I think one of the most impressive things is the fact that Arkansas decided that this was something they wanted to address and they developed a plan for doing it,” she said. “I think one of the biggest things that happened were things like the determination — the setting of the goals — to decrease reliance on commitments in the sentencing of young juveniles.”
In 2008, Arkansas’ Director of the Division of Youth Services Ron Angel led the drafting of a new reform policy program that aimed to increase the use of community-based support programs for juveniles, while simultaneously decreasing the number of youth in state lockup. The Arkansas Division of Youth Services Comprehensive Reform Plan 2009–2014 was completed and approved in the summer of 2009, with financial backing from organizations such as the JEHT Foundation, the Atlantic Philanthropies and the Public Welfare Foundation.
“There had been problems at Alexander with the contractor that was running that operation,” Angel said. “There had been allegations of neglect, allegations of kids being given too much medication and there was a general concern about the quality and conditions of confinement.”
Angel said that upon becoming director of the state’s Department of Youth Services, he began consultations with members of various juvenile justice reform groups, including the National Center for Youth Law. At the time, he said that the Division of Youth Services had “no policies” in place.
“I basically opened the door for advocate groups, and let them take a look and give me advice on how we might make changes that would be better for the youth that we had in our facilities,” he said.
Angel said that one of the first major challenges he faced as the state’s DYS director was convincing people that the number of incarcerations at the Arkansas Juvenile Assessment and Treatment Center were actually decreasing. Furthermore, a temporary backlog resulted in an increase in juvenile detention center placements as reform measures began.
“I think the system wasn’t used to being efficient in finding placement, in finding treatment and getting the kids moved into more appropriate treatment,” Angel said. “As I told the DHS director, if we don’t do it, and we don’t do it wisely, then we can run into problems.”
The number of beds at the Arkansas Juvenile Assessment and Treatment Center soon dropped from 133 to 120, a vital first step according to Angel. “I felt like it was overcrowded, which fosters an unsafe atmosphere,” he said. “We are currently at 100, and I am in the process of reducing that facility another 30 beds and bringing it down to 70.”
A May 2008 report, entitled Juvenile Justice Reform in Arkansas: Building a Better Future for Youth, Their Families, and the Community served as the framework for many of the state’s infrastructural changes.
In addition to noting several problematic areas of the state’s juvenile justice system – among them, system fragmentation, inadequate risk and needs assessments and a lack of community-based resources – the report also outlined a communication strategy that would prove pivotal to the program’s success.
“I think there’s been a tremendous change in the state of Arkansas,” Angel said. “I went around and started visiting with the juvenile judges of the state to determine what they perceived to be their needs to provide services to youth rather than commitment.”
Angel said he feels as if there’s been a “general understanding and acceptance” of the role neurological development plays in the behavior of youth, which has influenced how many judges and citizens think about juvenile justice issues in the state.
“The best way to treat youth, any of the youth, is to keep them close to home,” he said. I think all the studies have proven this. I think that many of our youth can become institutionalized if we depend on residential placement for treatment.”
The state of Arkansas has seen a reduction in commitments for the last four years, Angel said, resulting in additional funding for community treatment services from Gov. Mike Bebee.
“We were able to take money out of our residential budget and put it into community-based budgets,” he noted. “I think in the next four years, as long as we show that we can reduce our dependence on residential, we can continually reduce the number of kids in our programs and we can focus on those cases that need in-depth treatment.”
Arifuku praised the state for its reform programs, which she said reduced “the actual time that youth served from the time they are placed in commitment to actual release” while promoting administrative polices that do not lead to an increased public safety risk.
“A lot of the data is similar to what’s happening across the country, which is the number of commitments are going down,” she commented. “Overall it’s down in many jurisdictions. The ups and downs in terms of arrests and the number of commitments which result are [on] much more of a steady downward trend.”
According to Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention statistics, Arkansas placed 729 juveniles in residential placement in 2010 – a decrease of more than 10 percent from state data from five years prior. That same year, 29 states placed higher numbers of juveniles in state facilities and detention centers.
Angel said that the results of the state’s reform policies were apparent.
“We’re down 19.6 percent in kids committed to the Division of Youth Services,” he concluded.
“If you put money into community services and reduce dependency on residential service, it’s going to save the taxpayers’ dollars, it’s going to be better for the kids and I think it’s just a better way of doing business.”