(This is four of four parts.)
In Arkansas, juvenile justice reform has long proved elusive. While most neighboring states have reduced their youth incarceration rates by double digits since the 1990s, Arkansas’ confinement per capita confinement numbers remain stubbornly high.
But those figures vary widely across the state. In Benton County, the state’s second-largest county, only five youths were committed to the state Department of Human Services’ Division of Youth Services in 2017, down from 29 a decade ago. The 13th Judicial District, comprised of six counties in South Arkansas, committed 60 youths to DYS in 2017 — even though the area's population is about half that of Benton County's. Several other jurisdictions are not far behind.
Benton County and neighboring Washington County have led the state in reducing the use of confinement, 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. In these Northwest Arkansas jurisdictions, alternatives to confinement are routinely deployed in lieu of lockups, from electronic monitoring to family counseling. Youth advocates say much of the credit is due to the efforts of two juvenile judges dedicated to reform.
But the I-49 corridor from Fayetteville to Bentonville can seem a world apart from the rest of Arkansas. Powered by Walmart, Tyson Foods and other corporate behemoths, the region’s economy and population have exploded over the last several decades. The prosperity isn’t shared by everyone — there are an estimated 19,000 children living in poverty in Benton and Washington counties, according to U.S. Census data — but it’s obvious that the rapid growth is a good problem for local policymakers to have.
Can the reforms in Northwest Arkansas be replicated across the state? Or will they be limited to those few places in Arkansas with the human and economic capital to create and sustain alternatives?
“I think it’s a struggle for rural communities and rural juvenile courts, because they don’t have a lot of money,” Washington County Circuit Judge Stacey Zimmerman said. “They don't have the tax base that other, bigger counties do, and they might not have foundations that they can go and ask for grants and such things.”
But, she added, judges and probation officers everywhere can benefit from programs such as the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative, which has been active in Washington and Benton counties since 2013. 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’s third JDAI site.) Zimmerman said JDAI, which emphasizes community partnerships and data-driven decisions, has helped her find new strategies to reduce confinement.
“You can bring that back to your jurisdiction and be more mindful,” she said. “I have to tell you, it is a lot of work, and you have to be really committed to your kids and your families and be willing to try new things. Sometimes they might work, sometimes they might not. … If there are judges in the state — or out-of-state — that want to come and see the things we’re doing in Washington and Benton counties to see if they can replicate it, we would welcome people to come.”
Jason Szanyi, a deputy director at the D.C.-based Center for Children's Law and Policy, works with the juvenile courts in Benton and Washington counties to implement JDAI. Many of the program’s sites across the country are located in areas without booming economies, he said.
“In a jurisdiction that has fewer resources … it’s even more important to take a look at how they're using the folks within the system and the limited resources that are available to work with young people,” Szanyi said. “The initiative has a structure to it that is designed to help any system become more efficient and more effective.”
Benton County Circuit Judge Tom Smith acknowledged Benton County enjoys advantages. “Northwest Arkansas has a lot of resources in place and a lot of people trying to do this, so we’re very blessed. … I’m sure we have less juvenile violent crime than in some areas … because our economy is so good — I get all that.”
However, he noted, some alternatives don’t require a huge infusion of cash. “Anybody can have home monitoring units. Anybody can get programs set up through a church or a nonprofit. A lot of this is not high-tech stuff. … I got some volunteers from one of our local CrossFit guys to come over and team up with the sheriff to use their gym, and we just gave these boys something to do three days a week to be proud of. That didn’t cost any money. Now, it took some time, but ... all those kids have done well.”
In a small, rural county, Smith said, “you would really have to have outside the box thinking” to come up with alternatives. “I would immediately think, well, OK, we’re going to have to shift toward law enforcement, fire department, municipal organizations being my mentors. … You’re not going to have as many big churches … but you can get small ones to do it, too. You have to be willing to get out there and get people involved.”
Theoretically, a system does exist to provide alternatives throughout the state: the DYS. In addition to operating the eight secure residential facilities, the DYS’ mission also includes providing “community-based prevention [and] diversion” programs. It contracts with 13 nonprofit providers to deliver those services statewide.
Yet the community-based provider in Northwest Arkansas, Youth Bridge, is not the delivery mechanism for most of the alternatives that have been deployed to such positive effect in Benton and Washington counties. Instead, Smith and Zimmerman have sought and found assistance from other entities: nonprofits, foundations, local government, businesses, churches and so on.
“Youth Bridge is not a big percentage of it,” Smith said. “They’re our state provider, but they’re just one stakeholder.”
Darryl Rhoda, the CEO of Youth Bridge, is also the president of the Arkansas Youth Service Providers Association. He had a simple answer when asked why providers like his organization don’t offer more alternatives to juvenile judges: “In 20 years, we haven’t gotten a raise [from the state] … and our costs just keep going up. They don’t give us enough money.”
In addition to a shelter in Springdale, Youth Bridge operates an inpatient substance abuse treatment facility, Journey House. It also provides outpatient drug counseling, electronic monitoring and various forms of therapy for children and families. Youth Bridge coordinates with Smith, Zimmerman and other juvenile judges in an eight-county service area to determine how to spend the limited money it receives annually from the DYS.
Zimmerman agreed that Youth Bridge lacks the funding to deliver the array of alternatives needed by her court.
“We have to prioritize,” Zimmerman said. “I don’t want to take away from inpatient drug treatment, shelter beds, ankle monitors or individual counselors for our kids that need counseling. So when we’re looking at what’s most important with that DYS money … those are the things we really need from our provider. By the time that they provide those things, there’s really not any money left over for JDAI stuff.”
“I think everybody knows that we need more community alternatives,” Rhoda said. Statewide, he said, “we’re spending $18-19 million on community alternatives, and we’re spending about twice that on incarcerating about 500 kids” in DYS facilities.
(The DYS budgeted $27.6 million for residential services in the 2017 state fiscal year. Taxpayers spend around $87,000 annually per youth housed at the state's largest secure facility, the Arkansas Juvenile Assessment and Treatment Center.)
“I have folks working in emergency shelters making barely minimum wage, trying to supervise eight kids per worker. … There’s something wrong with that,” Rhoda said. “We should have twice the amount of dollars we had 20 years ago, or three times — but we don’t, and you’re going to get what you pay for.”
He also voiced frustration that the DYS contracts are unclear about desired outcomes. “My pressure as the CEO of Youth Bridge is that the courts keep demanding more and more of my agency, and I’m not getting any more resources. … If somebody’s critical of providers, I’m going to be very defensive, because they’re not the issue. It’s that we need a more competent system.”
DYS Director Betty Guhman said that the agency’s long-term goal is to "rebalance our funding more toward community-based [alternatives], because we know that's more effective in the long run." However, lockup facilities eat up most of the agency’s funding each year, and there is little appetite in the state legislature for increasing the DYS’ budget.
"We use our money for residential treatment — kids that are committed to us and those that are going back [home], for aftercare,” Guhman said. “It doesn't leave a lot of money for diversion.”
That’s why some reform-minded judges have decided local resources are their only option.
“There’s a lot of money spent if you have to lock up kids,” Smith said. “Well, if you’re going to keep them from being locked up, you need to be willing to spend some money to do that too.”
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.