This is part one of a two-part series.
The number of delinquent youth remanded to the Arkansas Division of Youth Services during the fiscal year that ended in July was the lowest in at least two decades, according to figures recently released by the DYS.
Juvenile judges committed 451 youth to state custody in fiscal year 2017 — a 14 percent decrease from 2015, when commitments to the DYS reached 526.
The commitment rate does not reflect every youth confined in a facility in Arkansas. It excludes kids detained in county-level juvenile detention centers, as well as those who were transferred to the adult criminal justice system. Nonetheless, the decline in DYS commitments, which appears to be driven by local efforts in several of the state's most populous counties, has some advocates cautiously hopeful that Arkansas may be poised to finally overhaul its juvenile justice system.
Over the last two decades, most states have dramatically reduced the number of youth locked away in secure facilities, including Arkansas' neighbors. Texas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Tennessee, Mississippi and Louisiana all lowered their juvenile confinement rates by double digits from 1997 to 2015, according to the U.S. Department of Justice's Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.
Arkansas' rate decreased by just 8 percent over that period, despite an emerging consensus that confinement is usually a counterproductive and overly expensive response to delinquency. The question now is whether policymakers can translate recent local successes to statewide reform.
"There are parts of the state where things continue to be a problem and others where we're making great progress," DYS Director Betty Guhman told the Arkansas Nonprofit News Network. The DYS is a division of the state Department of Human Services.
A top aide to Gov. Asa Hutchinson with a background in social work, Guhman previously served as chief of staff during Hutchinson's tenures in Congress and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. The governor named her to run the DYS on an interim basis in July 2016 and made the appointment permanent that September. Guhman seems to channel Hutchinson's preference for cautious, deliberative incrementalism rather than bold calls to immediate action — but she is quietly aiming for big changes.
"The whole juvenile code needs to be revisited," she said. "Do you want to start picking at this or this or this — or do you want a whole rewrite? I think most everybody is supportive of a complete rewrite. ... We're really trying to do that for the [2019 legislative] session, working with judges, providers, other advocates. ... Let's see what we can all agree on and try to move forward."
"We" means three principal players. First, the DYS, which oversees Arkansas' eight residential juvenile facilities, as well as diversion and aftercare programs. Second, the juvenile judges whose courts constitute the "front door" to the system. Third, the nonprofit providers that contract with the DYS to deliver services, from managing residential facilities to administering diversion and aftercare.
In recent years, reformers in Arkansas have largely focused their efforts on the county level rather than the state, partly because of a lack of continuity in DYS leadership since former director Ron Angel retired in 2013. Angel actively pushed for legislation intended to reduce the use of confinement by steering funding toward community-based programs and away from secure facilities. The effort foundered in the state Senate, however, and Angel departed soon afterward.
Angel's successor, Tracy Steele, lasted in the job for a little over a year, as did the next appointee, Marcus Devine. Commitments to the DYS, which declined during Angel's six-year tenure, rose from 2013 to 2015.
Pat Arthur, a lawyer formerly with the National Center for Youth Law, worked closely with Angel from 2007 to 2013 to craft reforms aimed at reducing confinement. "When Ron Angel was in charge of DYS ... there was a genuine effort to downsize facilities," she said. "I worked my whole time there trying to reduce the beds."
"All of the prisons there should be closed," she added, referring to the DYS residential facilities. "They're all antiquated, large institutions that are being shown around the country, in practice and also through research, to be ineffective in providing the kind of rehabilitative programming that youth in trouble with the law need to get back on a positive track and contribute to their community."
After Angel left the DYS, Arthur said, "there was just not the same kind of commitment ... to changing the system to one that relies less on incarceration and more on keeping youth in programs that work in the community. There was lip service perhaps, but nothing concretely that was done to advance it."
Arthur retired last December and said she was not familiar with developments in Arkansas in the past year. But other advocates expressed optimism about the agency's direction under Guhman — who, unlike her two predecessors, is expected to stick around.
"I think there's reason to be hopeful, but I think there's a lot of frustration — among not just advocates but folks within the system themselves — about the pace of change," Jason Szanyi, a deputy director at the D.C.-based Center for Children's Law and Policy, said.
Since 2013, Szanyi has worked with juvenile courts in two Northwest Arkansas counties, Benton and Washington, to implement a program called the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative, or JDAI, which has helped reduce detention in favor of community-based alternatives such as mentorships, family therapy and evening reporting centers. JDAI is active in more than 300 sites throughout the country, and Pulaski County will begin implementing the program in 2018.
In other jurisdictions, the use of a new risk-assessment tool has reduced confinement by helping judges identify various needs and risks of youth. Faulkner County Circuit Judge Troy Braswell said the screening process has been "a game changer" since it was rolled out in his court in 2016 as part of a pilot program.
Between 2015 and 2016, Braswell said, "we cut juvenile confinement by 23 percent in our district. And then for the fiscal year, as far as DYS commitments, we cut our commitment by 31 percent." He noted that the juvenile crime rate seems to have dropped as well: "We also had a 7 percent reduction in charges filed by the prosecutor.
"Kids are still going to get detained when it's appropriate, but that can't always be the answer," Braswell said. "As courts individually, and then as a state, we've got to do a better job of providing services to the family earlier on in the case." Braswell also chairs the Youth Justice Reform Board, a body created by the governor to make recommendations on juvenile justice issues.
Such reforms have reduced both the number of youths detained locally in juvenile detention centers and those committed to DYS facilities — but only among those courts that have embraced them. Many other judges continue to lock up large numbers of kids each year, meaning confinement numbers have remained high for the state as a whole.
"Arkansas has not seen the same level of reduction in commitment to state custody as many other states," Szanyi said. "There's a lot of inertia in terms of how things have been done in the state, and how they've been done from county to county. That can be tough to counter without a coordinated effort to reform the system. ... You need someone at DYS who has a long-term vision for juvenile justice reform.
"Director Guhman is someone who has a longstanding relationship with the governor and understands the issues," Szanyi said. "Our hope is that ... with strong leadership at DYS, we can start tackling some of the issues that need to be looked at in order for Arkansas to see some very significant and beneficial changes in the system."
Tom Masseau is the executive director of Disability Rights Arkansas, an advocacy group that performs regular observations at the eight juvenile treatment centers and correctional facilities run by the DYS. He attributes the recent decrease in commitments mostly to individual judges choosing community-based alternatives; broader statewide reform has remained more talk than action.
"The holdup is that everybody likes the idea of reform, but nobody wants to roll up their sleeves and do it," he said. "I think when Ron [Angel] left, everything just kind of fell apart, and you had some directors who were appointed who had the best intentions but for whatever reason just couldn't move it forward. Now, I think with Betty Guhman in there — at least based on my meetings with her, she seems very committed. ... It's just contingent upon the legislature giving leeway to the division.
"I see us moving more toward some serious reforms," Masseau said. "At least, that's what we're going to be pushing for."
Braswell said the push for reform must continue at the local level, but he, too, sees new potential for the state to lead rather than follow.
"I think up to this point, DYS has been doing what the juvenile justice system has been doing," he said. "In my conversations with Director Guhman, I think they understand they're going to have to be more targeted in their contracts with the providers and making sure that judges and providers are working together to provide the services that are evidence-based and have a track record of working. To me, they understand that things have to change."
This reporting is courtesy of the Arkansas Nonprofit News Network, an independent, nonpartisan news project dedicated to producing journalism that matters to Arkansans. Find out more at arknews.org.