Wednesday, Mar 28, 2012
National Experts Recognize Improvements in Arkansas' Youth Services
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LITTLE ROCK - At a meeting of the Senate Committee on Children and Youth, a national advocacy group praised the improvements made in the Arkansas juvenile justice system over the past four years.
Incarceration rates in juvenile lockups are down because more young offenders are being placed in neighborhood programs. Less reliance on institutionalization of young offenders has saved the state money, which has helped pay for treatment and counseling programs.
Other states as well as Arkansas have reformed their juvenile justice systems because studies showed that placing so many young people in a lockup was expensive and did little to change their behavior. Youth crime is down, as indicated by a decline in arrests of minors, so the shift to placing youths in community-based programs has not had a negative effect on public safety, according to the report.
Also, for the past four years there has been stability in management at the Division of Youth Services.
The facilities were dangerous for many of the young people who committed a misdemeanor and were locked up with serious offenders who have emotional and psychological problems. In a six month period in 2001, two young men committed suicide at the state's main facility at Alexander. In 2005 a young woman died while under confinement at Alexander and serious concerns were raised about her medical care.
Advocacy groups and the families of adolescents who had gone through the system threatened lawsuits. Federal agencies found fault with the state's Youth Services Division when they investigated complaints about treatment.
In 2007 the Arkansas Senate adopted a resolution to initiate far-reaching changes in the system and lessen our use of large juvenile correctional facilities. The governor named Ron Angel as the new director of the Youth Services Division and he has remained there since. In contrast, before his appointment the division had nine different directors in only 12 years.
Since 2008 the number of commitments has been reduced 20 percent. The average length of stay in a residential facility has dropped by 19 percent. The number of beds in use at Alexander has gone down by 30 percent.
The report on the Arkansas juvenile justice system was written by two experts - a former attorney for the National Center for Youth Law and a senior researcher at the National Council on Crime and Delinquency. The Public Welfare Foundation and other philanthropic organizations provided financial support. It is called "Arkansas Youth Justice; The Architecture of Reform."
In a cover letter, the governor pledged his "commitment to developing strategies to reduce our state's over-reliance on confinement of young people by reinvesting the money saved through less incarceration into more effective community-based support systems and services for youth."
One reason judges were sentencing young offenders to state custody in a detention facility was the lack of community programs. The legislature, at the governor's request, has expanded access to treatment and counseling programs.
A result is that judges, public defenders, probation officers and DYS staff are working better together on risk assessments that more accurately gauge the danger to society of an individual offender. Those who are not truly dangerous are less likely to be confined in state custody in a lockup.