(This is two of four parts.)
Over the past decade, two counties in Northwest Arkansas have drastically reduced their juvenile incarceration rate.
In 2007, Benton County committed 29 delinquent youths to the state Department of Human Services’ Division of Youth Services. In 2017, the number was five.
“It saves money, it saves resources, but more importantly, the data shows that once you start locking up a kid, the propensity to get locked up [again] increases tenfold,” Benton County Circuit Judge Tom Smith said. “[Our] philosophy is lock up last, not lock up first.”
In Washington County, Circuit Judge Stacey Zimmerman has presided over a similarly steep decline in state commitments — from 20 in 2007 to seven in 2017. Both counties have also reduced the number of youth locked up in their local juvenile detention centers, or JDCs, over the past decade.
The reductions in confinement follow national trends. Youth incarceration has declined in most Southern states by double digits since the 1990s. Arkansas, however, is an outlier: It continues to lock up children at a high rate. But some juvenile courts are trying to change that from the ground up.
In one sense, the reforms in Benton and Washington counties are as simple as two judges concluding that they must incarcerate fewer young people. In another sense, though, the changes are anything but simple. It’s not that Zimmerman and Smith are ignoring delinquent behavior; it’s that they’re using different, finer tools than the blunt instrument of punitive confinement.
Electronic monitoring, substance abuse treatment, mental health treatment, shelters and group homes, family counseling, mentorships, job training — all are alternatives the judges may deploy in lieu of detention or commitment to the DYS.
Zimmerman cited an expansion of diversion efforts as one key to reducing confinement in Washington County. Those include an “adventure club” that provides outdoor activities such as kayaking or hiking; Girls Circle, a peer-to-peer support group; and, a family therapy program, Creating Lasting Family Connections. With the assistance from the Washington County quorum court, several of Zimmerman’s staff have become certified instructors in the program.
Diversion cases are those that do not progress to a formal hearing before Zimmerman, the judge explained. “A diversion officer meets with a kid who receives a ticket for some nonviolent, non-felony crime, like shoplifting … before the kid is even filed on with a [delinquency] petition, before the kid even comes in the courtroom to see me.
“Each kid is different. Maybe it’s just going to be a meeting with the kid, and they’re already scared to death, and they’re like ‘OK, I’ll never do this again,’ and the [officer] just warns and dismisses it. Maybe the kid needs some counseling, so the officer calls the counselor and gets an appointment set up. Or maybe the parent needs some parenting classes. So that diversion officer is kind of a triage person to get what the kid needs and what the family needs.”
When Zimmerman first took the bench in 1999, there were no diversion officers in Washington County. She now has two staff devoted to the role full-time.
Crucially, Smith said, alternative programs are not necessarily interchangeable from case to case, even when the offense is the same. One youth arrested for theft may be feeding a drug problem; another may have never touched drugs but could have serious problems at home. Calibrating the right response requires a careful examination of what is happening in a child’s life to contribute to his or her delinquent behavior — in the jargon, a “risk assessment.”
“We do testing to find out what the kid needs that might have caused the behavior,” Smith said. “We don’t just go, ‘You did this, so we’re going to do X to you.’ We need to know what caused it. That’s why testing is such a big part of the rehabilitation process for juveniles. It dictates what to do.”
Drew Shover, the chief juvenile probation officer in Benton County, said his staff has been trained to depend on risk assessments to determine how to handle each youth. In March, the county began using a specialized tool called the Structured Assessment of Violence Risk in Youth, or SAVRY, which was designed by researchers to identify criminogenic risk factors in different categories: substance abuse, family stability, education and so on. Youth, and sometimes their families, undergo an exhaustive battery of questions, the answers to which guide the youth’s eventual disposition by the court.
“When we started getting trained on risk assessments in 2014, that really helped out,” Shover said. “Staff were looking at cases differently. You can put only so much of your professionalism into a case and you can be dead wrong … A [juvenile] officer says, ‘Oh, I really know my kids’ — then they can read a SAVRY and quickly realize how much they don’t know about their kids. … It basically gives you facts. Takes all the subjectivity out of it.”
Above Shover’s desk is posted a document titled “Benton County Service Matrix: Risk/Need/Responsivity,” which categorizes the many dispositional options available to Shover and Judge Smith, from drug court to after-school programming to inpatient mental health. The matrix is intended to pair each kid with the right program.
“We don’t just put them in this program here because it’s available,” Shover said, pointing to one column. “Because what’s the point of using a tool involving a risk rating if you’re not going to follow the model?”
Shover has been in the juvenile justice field for 23 years. During that time, he has filled many roles at the Benton County probation office — intake officer, probation officer, supervisor — but he said the use of risk assessments to guide the disposition of juvenile cases has fundamentally changed the way he approaches his job.
“I’ve learned more in the past four or five years than the first 13 working here,” he said. “People will ask me, ‘So you were wrong before?’ And yeah, I was wrong.”
Since 2013, Jason Szanyi, a deputy director at the D.C.-based Center for Children’s Law and Policy, has worked with the juvenile courts in Benton and Washington counties to implement the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative.
A project of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, JDAI has now been deployed in some 300 communities throughout the U.S. (In 2018, Pulaski County will become Arkansas’ third JDAI site.) Though many of the changes in Northwest Arkansas were underway before JDAI arrived, Szanyi’s role is to help the counties continue pushing forward with reform.
“The best way to think of it is that we’re kind of like coaches,” he said. “We’re really trying to educate folks in the system about what the best practices are and how to use their data strategically. … The JDAI model involves bringing together those who have a stake in the juvenile justice system — public schools, law enforcement, community-based service providers and others — to think and collaborate and try to come up with better, more effective interventions for kids.”
Szanyi said the focus of JDAI is to reduce unnecessary detentions before adjudication (the equivalent of a trial). “So, I’m not talking about placement and commitment to DYS. I’m talking about: If a kid gets arrested, are they brought to detention? Are they released? Are they released to an alternative program?”
Research shows that even short-term detentions can have a harmful effect, he said. “Two or three days may not sound like a lot, but it’s enough time for a kid to fall behind in school, for a kid to associate with [other] kids who have been in the system for awhile — and we don’t want kids learning negative behaviors from kids who are in detention for more serious offenses.”
Although JDAI is focused on what happens to youths between arrest and adjudication, Szanyi said cutting back on short-term lockups tends to also reduce long-term commitments to the DYS.
“By reducing the detention population, what we find is that we get fewer kids who move into the ‘deep end’ of the system, where they may be placed with DYS or end up in the adult criminal justice system,” he said. A recent Casey Foundation study of JDAI sites across the nation found a 57 percent reduction in state commitments over the time that the initiative was operational in each location. “Benton and Washington county have had that experience too, but they were already committing far, far fewer kids to DYS than many other counties in Arkansas [before JDAI].”
Shover said JDAI has helped Benton County in two key areas: community partnerships and data. “We collaborate a lot more with our community stakeholders now … And also, we collect data so much better than we used to. It used to be [only] simple stuff — detentions, commitments. But now we’re looking at how effective our programming is: The things that we do, do they have an impact?”
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.