(This is three of four parts.)
Arkansas has long trailed most of the rest of the nation in reducing juvenile incarceration. Over the past two decades, every other state in the region — Texas included — cut juvenile confinement rates by double digits. Arkansas, though, continues to lock kids up at high rates, both in terms of commitments to the state Department of Human Services’ Division of Youth Services and shorter-term stays at local juvenile detention centers, or JDCs.
But two counties in the northwest corner of the state may point the way toward reform.
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. Neighboring Washington County has seen a similarly steep decline in state commitments — from 20 in 2007 to seven in 2017. Detention rates have dropped as well. Over that same period, the counties have seen rapid population growth, the result of an economic boom fueled by corporate giants such as Bentonville, Arkansas-based Walmart.
Benton County Circuit Judge Tom Smith, who has overseen the circuit’s juvenile division since 2013, said the drop in confinement is no accident. “We’ve been working on keeping our lockups as low as possible. … We use [the JDC] when we have to use it; we don’t use it just to use it,” Smith said.
Since 2013, both counties have partnered with a national program called the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative to find creative ways to cut down on confinement. A project of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, JDAI has now been deployed in some 300 communities throughout the U.S. (In 2018, the state’s largest county population, Pulaski County, will become Arkansas’s third JDAI site.)
In Washington County, Circuit Judge Stacey Zimmerman said her court has benefited from studying successful JDAI programs elsewhere in the country. After one site visit — paid for by the DYS, she said — the judge concluded that the county needed an entirely new program: an evening reporting center.
Zimmerman and Smith are focused on finding alternatives to locking kids up. 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 DYS commitment.
At the center, offenders are required to spend their afterschool hours (from 4 to 8 p.m.) under supervision but return home for the night. Established in collaboration with Teen Action and Support Center, a Rogers, Arkansas-based nonprofit, the evening reporting center opened in April in a rent-free space in downtown Springdale, Arkansas provided by the Jones Trust, a local foundation. It provides a sanction for offenders that is more restrictive than regular probation but stops far short of incarceration.
“Our medium- to high-risk kids are getting services where they are, where they go to school,” Zimmerman said. “It’s really keeping our kids in our community and getting them the help they need — for the kids that are not violent threats to society.”
Washington County Juvenile Court Director Norma Frisby said the evening reporting center is most often used as a graduated sanction for youths who violate their terms and conditions of release. Since it opened last spring, about 60 teens have been assigned to the reporting center rather than being locked up at the JDC.
“We’re trying to reduce the number of kids that go into detention for minor violations or technical violations,” Frisby said. “Instead of requesting a petition for revocation of probation, the officer can just give them this as a sanction. If you committed a new offense, between now and the time that you have to come to court for that new offense, you’re going to come to the ERC for 14 or 20 days or whatever it might be … instead of putting them in detention for 20 days.
“They have to be picked up and dropped off by a parent, and it’s just that inconvenience of them not being able to be free during those evening hours. It reduces them getting into more trouble.” If a youth repeatedly fails to show up, he may still be sent to the JDC.
The DYS provided a $10,000 grant to buy equipment, including furniture and laptops for the center, Frisby said, but most of the resources originated locally. The building, which is undergoing renovations, will eventually house several nonprofits that serve youth in the area.
“We were hopeful that DYS would continue to help us financially to start these programs up and carry them on through state money,” Zimmerman said. “That happened on a very small level, but not as much as we hoped … and so that’s when I went to our Washington County Quorum Court. They saw our data, they heard what we had to say, and they funded us two probation officers and a full-time counselor for our evening reporting center. That was huge.”
Even with support from the county and partner nonprofits, the evening reporting center operates on an uncomfortably tight margin. Due to limited staff, it closes down during the winter holidays, Frisby said.
“Obviously, the program could be so much bigger and better, and the need is there,” she said. “And also the location — we could always use one of these in Fayetteville too, but at the time when we collected the data to see where we needed an ERC, we were getting the most referrals from Springdale.”
“It always comes down to money. … Hopefully, eventually, we’ll have more staff.”
Benton County, meanwhile, is undertaking the ambitious project of transforming a wing of its JDC into a shelter, rather than a lockup. Drew Shover, the county’s chief juvenile probation officer, said the population of the 36-bed JDC now averages between six and seven youths per day, thanks to the decline in detention rates. That means a large portion of the facility can be converted to an alternate use.
Like the evening reporting center, the shelter will serve as a less-restrictive alternative to incarceration for certain youths who get arrested or violate their probation. But it will also provide a safe place for runaways, and for youth that need to be removed from their homes temporarily.
Until last year, Shover said, Benton County sent such youth to a shelter in nearby Centerton operated by Youth Bridge, the nonprofit provider officially contracted by the DYS to provide community-based services to Northwest Arkansas. Last December, Youth Bridge moved its shelter to Springdale in Washington County instead, citing a greater need in that community.
“They kind of pulled the plug on us a little bit,” Shover said. “That’s a big challenge when you have alternatives and you lose one.” After the Centerton shelter closed, Shover said, detentions in Benton County began to rise as a result — so the county decided to start its own. The project, which will cost an estimated $328,000, is to be paid for with a grant from the Endeavor Foundation, a local entity, along with a smaller appropriation from the Benton County Quorum Court.
Construction will begin in early 2018 and will include a separate entrance to keep the space entirely distinct from the JDC.
To be licensed as a shelter, Shover said, “it has to be out of sight and sound from the detention population. These kids are not in a secure facility. … So now, law enforcement gets to bring kids into a shelter and not a detention center.” It’s a distinction that matters, he said. “Getting strip-searched is a big deal, and getting deloused is a big deal.”
“We’re going to have kids flee from here; that’s inevitable,” Shover acknowledged. “But we also know that our kids who shouldn’t be in a locked facility are not going to be in a locked facility. … Most of the time kids do not run away from shelters … and that goes to show that those alternatives are OK. We go with the majority, not the minority.”
“It’s similar with ankle bracelets,” he noted. “We don’t have a big, big problem with kids cutting off ankle bracelets. I mean, we have some that do — but the majority don’t. … It’s an exchange. Either you’re going to pay for them to be locked up, or you’re going to pay for them to have some alternatives, and I can assure you that that’s a cost savings: using alternatives.”
Though Benton County has dramatically cut detentions and commitments, the goal is to keep pushing the needle downward. “We’re looking to reduce the confined youth population another 40 percent. That’s our performance indicator,” Shover said.
The shelter will be one key to doing that, he added. “It gives us options. It’s going to be quite the endeavor, but it’s exciting.”
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.