Com­mu­nity ser­vice pro­grams aid trou­bled youth

The Times (Northeast Benton County) - - OPINION - CE­CILE BLED­SOE Arkansas Se­na­tor

LIT­TLE ROCK — Last year 451 Arkansas teenagers were con­fined in a se­cure fa­cil­ity be­cause they got in trou­ble with the au­thor­i­ties.

The over­whelm­ing ma­jor­ity, 86 per­cent, com­mit­ted non-vi­o­lent of­fenses, which in­cludes tru­ancy from school and run­ning away from home.

The youths that were jailed last year in Arkansas ranged from age 11 to age 20, more than half were ei­ther 16 or 17 years old, and 86 per­cent were boys.

The ju­ve­nile de­ten­tion fa­cil­i­ties are op­er­ated by the state Di­vi­sion of Youth Ser­vices, which re­cently pre­sented its an­nual re­port to leg­is­la­tors.

The Di­vi­sion also con­tracts with 13 non-profit or­ga­ni­za­tions that pro­vide ser­vices for trou­bled youths such as struc­tured care af­ter they get out of school each af­ter­noon. Ser­vices in­clude aca­demic tu­tor­ing, de­vel­op­ment of job skills and ther­apy.

Last year more than 8,000 Arkansas youths were helped by those com­mu­nity ser­vice providers. The Di­vi­sion pre­sented its an­nual re­port to law­mak­ers at a meet­ing of the Sen­ate Com­mit­tee on Chil­dren and Youth. The chair­man ex­pressed frus­tra­tion that so many youths were sent to jail for non-vi­o­lent of­fenses.

The Di­vi­sion sur­veyed judges and pro­ba­tion of­fi­cers to de­ter­mine the whether they are sat­is­fied with the al­ter­na­tives to in­car­cer­a­tion that are avail­able. One is­sue is that dif­fer­ent ar­eas of the state have dif­fer­ent lev­els of ser­vice avail­able.

One of the Di­vi­sion’s goals is to shorten the av­er­age length of con­fine­ment for youths. The fa­cil­i­ties are in Alexan­der, Colt, Der­mott, Har­ris­burg, Lewisville and Mans­field. They’re run by about 280 staff. The Di­vi­sion plans to con­tract with pri­vate con­trac­tors next year to op­er­ate the fa­cil­i­ties.

The Di­vi­sion’s ad­min­is­tra­tive staff is work­ing to hold down the cost to the state. They’re ex­plor­ing whether Med­i­caid will pay for some of the costs. Med­i­caid is mostly funded by the fed­eral govern­ment and pays for health care, and the ju­ve­nile lockups pro­vide ther­apy, men­tal health treat­ment and sub­stance abuse treat­ment. Also, the fa­cil­i­ties are en­rolling in the Na­tional School Lunch Pro­gram, the Di­vi­sion staff told leg­is­la­tors.

Youth Ser­vices is shar­ing data with prison of­fi­cials to track re­cidi­vism rates, so as to get a more ac­cu­rate pic­ture of what pro­grams are work­ing best to keep trou­bled youths out of the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem.

Re­uni­fi­ca­tion with fam­ily is a pri­or­ity. While the youth is con­fined, it’s im­por­tant for fam­ily to stay in­volved with fre­quent vis­its and par­tic­i­pa­tion in the youths’ re­cov­ery. That may mean that par­ents have to mod­ify their own be­hav­ior and con­front their own his­tory of sub­stance abuse.

Judges told Youth Ser­vices of­fi­cials that in many cases they be­lieved the par­ents were the root cause of the child’s delin­quency.

•••

Edi­tor’s note: Arkansas Se­na­tor Ce­cile Bled­soe rep­re­sents the third district. From Rogers, Sen. Bled­soe is chair of the Pub­lic Health, Wel­fare and La­bor Com­mit­tee.

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