Coun­ties fo­cus on at-risk youths

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - NORTHWEST ARKANSAS - BRAN­DON MULDER

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.”

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