Counties focus on at-risk youths
A wing of Benton County’s juvenile detention facility that once held delinquent youths is undergoing a transformation.
Eight beds will be used as shelter beds for youths with nowhere else to go.
Without shackles and handcuffs, or typical detention jumpsuits, the children housed in this shelter — the runaways, the kids whose parents are nowhere to be found, or those whose home life is simply too perilous to return — will “always have free access to run,” said Tom Smith, a Benton County juvenile court judge.
The Benton County Juvenile Detention Facility now has ample room to turn lockup space into a shelter, known as an emergency residential facility. That’s because policy changes the facility made in 2013 have dropped the detention population dramatically, from 690 delinquent youths spending 5,700 days in detention in 2012, to 468 youths spending 3,662 days in detention in 2016 — a more than 30 percent drop in both metrics.
Washington County’s youth detention center simultaneously underwent similar changes, causing a more than 25 percent drop, from 355 to 265 detentions during the same time, according to data provided
by the county.
Today, the majority of both facilities often remains vacant.
Both Washington and Benton counties revamped their juvenile justice systems according to a template created by the Annie E. Casey Foundation that has been spreading throughout the nation since 1992. The foundation’s Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative is encouraging the idea juvenile justice systems should become less reliant on detention as an appropriate punishment method, without risking public safety.
This summer, Pulaski County announced its intention to adopt the Casey Foundation’s guidelines, which have spread to more than 300 jurisdictions across 39 states since their inception 25 years ago.
“We are no longer satisfied with the old saying, ‘This is how we’ve always done it,’” County Judge Barry Hyde said. “Improving the lives of at-risk youth is too important.”
According to the initiative’s philosophy, longstanding evidence shows the best way to improve the lives of atrisk youths — those who have spent many of their teenage years circulating through a juvenile justice system — is keeping them out of detention. Locking up youths, especially those who pose little or no risk to the public, can do more harm to a kid than good, it says.
“We have all this research on the harms of detention and the negative impact of locking kids up. First time you do that, research shows, that kid is much more likely to drop out of school,” said Jason Szanyi, deputy director of the Center for Children’s Law and Policy, a national consulting firm. “It’s no fault of the folks that are working in the facility; it’s just the system.”
Szanyi and his organization spent several months earlier this year doing an $18,000 assessment of Pulaski County’s juvenile justice system and its 48-bed facility. The consultants released their report in June, detailing how the system could improve efficiency and implement changes according to the initiative’s playbook, and Hyde has given a verbal commitment to partner the county with the Casey Foundation.
Szanyi’s assessment shed light on both weaknesses and strengths of the county’s system. For instance, while the number of youths detained annually has decreased 21 percent — from 1,080 detentions in 2012 to 844 last year, according to county data — nearly half of all detainees were youths charged with misdemeanor offenses.
And while the juvenile courts have reduced the numbers of kids turned over to the state’s Division of Youth Services — the so-called deep end of the system — 23 percent in those same four years, many of those commitments were at one point low- to moderate-risk youths initially detained on misdemeanor charges, the study said.
Fifty-four percent of detention admissions in 2016 were for probation violations — “a percentage that is among the highest that we have seen in our work on juvenile justice reform,” the study said.
The study suggested more could be done to divert kids to community supervision programs rather than congregating them with higher-risk youths.
To this end, the initiative’s proponents praise the use of a risk assessment instrument, an objective screening tool used by the detention facility’s intake officers to determine the risk level of youths picked up by law enforcement officers. Police officers will pick up youths for delinquency crimes, such as shoplifting, threatening or fighting at school, call an on-duty intake officer and score the kids’ risk to public safety.
If youths score below a certain threshold, they are held in the facility until they go before a judge. If they score above a certain threshold, the assessment instrument suggests officers either release the youths with a citation or admit them to a series of diversion options.
In Washington County, law enforcement officers have made 521 juvenile arrests this year, and the risk assessment instrument has dropped the number of kids detained at the time of arrest by 33 percent. In Benton County, the tool has helped detentions go down 16 percent out of 616 arrests this year.
The risk assessment instrument “has really helped with having an objective way to look at whether a kid should come to detention in the first place. That has been huge,” said Stacey Zimmerman, a Washington County juvenile court judge.
Pulaski County’s figures show 641 juvenile arrests made and, even without the use of a strictly objective screening tool, detentions at the time of arrest have been kept to 139, or 22 percent, this year — a rate relatively consistent over the past 20 years, according to county data.
Implementation of an objective assessment tool, screening low-risk kids out of detention and into diversion options, may help lower those county figures even further. And although juvenile justice officials are proud to have kept those figures low — the average population this year stands at 27 — “we could always use something like that,” said Chief Intake Officer Roger Rasico.
“We try everything we can to try and not detain someone, but a lot of times it may not even be a felony, it could be a misdemeanor and you’ve got a kid that’s just totally out of control where they could potentially get someone hurt,” Rasico said.
Currently, the county’s intake officers make judgment calls on whether to detain a youth based on the county’s juvenile code, which considers things such as a youth’s criminal history, the seriousness of the charge, and school performance.
But after his analysis, Szanyi said he felt the county’s current method may leave too much room for subjectivity when considering each youth’s case.
“It may be the case that implementing a tool like the RAI, if there is support for doing that amongst stakeholders, it would cut the detention population even further,” Szanyi said. “And that involves just filling out a form on kids who come to intake — not a huge investment of resources.”
Certain state statutes or a judge’s discretion would be able to override the screening tool. For instance, Arkansas law dictates that any youth with gun-related charges
Both Washington and Benton counties revamped their juvenile justice systems according to a template created by the Annie E. Casey Foundation that has been spreading throughout the nation since 1992.
must be locked up upon arrest. And in Washington County, Zimmerman has a strict rule for placing any youths with an intravenous drug problem in detention, where they would have more access to counselors.
The incorporation of initiative guidelines and its detention-reduction mission, however, will be unique to each jurisdiction according to its greatest needs.
Smith, Benton County’s juvenile judge, chose to transform part of his county’s facility to a shelter, which officials expect to be opened in November. And in Washington County, Zimmerman urged the county’s Quorum Court to open an evening reporting center in downtown Springdale, where probationers can meet with probation officers after school while receiving counseling and tutoring.
“We just think the more services we can get for kids, the better chance we have to keep them out of prison,” Zimmerman said.
Szanyi suggested Pulaski County adopt a similar practice by placing a reporting center closer to the neighborhoods where many of the families caught in the system live.
Two of Pulaski County’s three juvenile judges whom the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette spoke with expressed eagerness at the prospect of incorporating the initiative into the state’s largest juvenile justice jurisdiction, including a regularly scheduled stakeholder group meeting — of judges, probation officers, prosecutors and school administrators — and a new focus on comprehensive data collection to track the system’s weaknesses.
“This [study] is something the county is doing, so it shows that they’re concerned, too,” says Judge Patricia James. “It’s not to say that what we have out here is bad, it’s just that there’s always room for change.”
The direction Pulaski County is going is one that many stakeholders also hope to see spread further across the state.
“In Arkansas, we’re just not very good at taking the pile of things that work and spreading them out,” said Judge Joyce Warren. “You’ve got some areas in Arkansas that have very little resources and very little money — it needs to be a statewide approach. But at the same time, the counties can’t ignore what’s happening either, and that’s why I’m so excited about this.”
“Can you lower the crime rates by doing all these reforms?” said Judge Smith. “Not necessarily, but can you keep the recidivism down if you treat the kid right? That’s what we think. That’s what we’re trying to do.”