Youth-lockup re­port finds lit­tle is changed

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - FRONT PAGE - AMANDA CLAIRE CUR­CIO

Time be­hind bars still too long, it says

De­spite progress in re­cent years, Ar­kan­sas’ youth jus­tice sys­tem is still rife with prob­lems, a new re­port shows — namely, keep­ing kids locked up too long, even for mis­de­meanors; poor over­sight; a lack of use-of-force train­ing for of­fi­cers; and in­suf­fi­cient data-keep­ing that pre­vents the best use of re­sources.

Many of the chronic prob­lems out­lined in the re­port have been fre­quently cited by watch­dog groups, U.S. De­part­ment of Jus­tice in­spec­tors or Ar­kan­sas Demo­crat-Gazette re­port­ing. “There’s noth­ing new,” said Dorcy Corbin, long­time Pu­laski County ju­ve­nile pub­lic de­fender. “It’s a shame to see those is­sues haven’t been taken care of — the things we do to chil­dren in the name of jus­tice.”

Most kids are jailed for non­vi­o­lent of­fenses, the state’s own data show; al­most half of the chil­dren be­hind bars are there for com­mit­ting mis­de­meanors. And even though black chil­dren, ages 10 to 17, make up 16 per­cent of Ar­kan­sas’ youth pop­u­la­tion, nearly half of those com­mit­ted are black.

The re­port came from the Cen­ter for Chil­dren’s Law and Pol­icy, a Wash­ing­ton, D.C.-based re­search group that has helped at least 30 states re­vamp their juve-

nile-jus­tice sys­tems. Grant dol­lars cov­ered most of the state’s $73,678 con­tract with the or­ga­ni­za­tion, which was hired in March by the Youth Ser­vices Di­vi­sion.

The cen­ter has worked in Ar­kan­sas be­fore, specif­i­cally with Ben­ton, Pu­laski and Wash­ing­ton coun­ties’ Ju­ve­nile De­ten­tion Al­ter­na­tives Ini­tia­tive, an ef­fort in­tro­duced by the An­nie E. Casey Foun­da­tion, an­other na­tional child-pol­icy or­ga­ni­za­tion.

“Talk­ing about the fa­cil­i­ties, well, it’s bet­ter than noth­ing,” Corbin said, re­fer­ring to the re­port. “But there are still a lot of unan­swered ques­tions.”

Corbin, who said she had been hear­ing about the re­port for months, was cu­ri­ous why it made no men­tion of speak­ing to kids locked in the fa­cil­i­ties — since “that’s how you learn what’s re­ally go­ing on.”

The re­port doesn’t re­fer to oc­ca­sions when guards were too rough with chil­dren, though past in­ves­ti­ga­tions show that guards have bro­ken bones or hurt chil­dren through use of im­proper re­straints.

Yet, it rec­om­mends that ju­ve­nile-jail work­ers re­ceive de-es­ca­la­tion, cri­sis in­ter­ven­tion, be­hav­ior man­age­ment and use-of-force train­ing “that spends the bulk of teach­ing time on de-es­ca­la­tion tech­niques.”

Corbin also won­ders whether Ar­kan­sas’ ju­ve­nile-jail­ing num­bers — a 32 per­cent de­crease since 2001, and at a decades-low record of 402 com­mit­ments in the past year — went down be­cause more chil­dren were be­ing charged as adults, a con­cern she has been vo­cal about.

The rea­son we don’t have an­swers to ques­tions the re­port raises is be­cause of poor data col­lec­tion, Corbin said. The re­port echoes her con­cerns.

“An in­abil­ity to track mean­ing­ful short- and longterm out­comes from youth ex­it­ing res­i­den­tial place­ment … has left the state un­able to en­gage in a cost-ben­e­fit anal­y­sis of cur­rent fund­ing,” it said.

The lack of data also lim­its how pro­grams are de­vel­oped and hin­ders de­ter­min­ing whether treat­ment for youths is suc­cess­ful, the re­port found.

The Youth Ser­vices Di­vi­sion re­leased the re­port Fri­day af­ter­noon, say­ing it wel­comed the “can­did as­sess­ment” of how the state treated chil­dren com­mit­ted to any of its eight youth jails, in a pre­pared state­ment.

“There are steps we as a state can take within the next year and within the next five years to con­sid­er­ably im­prove our res­i­den­tial treat­ment pro­grams for youth in our care,” said Betty Guh­man, Youth Ser­vices direc­tor. “It won’t be easy and it will take time, but we are com­mit­ted to im­prov­ing this sys­tem.”

Guh­man sits on the Youth Jus­tice Re­form Board, a 21-mem­ber leg­isla­tively-em­pow­ered group of ad­vo­cates, so­cial work­ers, judges, law­mak­ers, com­mu­nity providers and child-wel­fare ex­perts. The board re­cently merged with the state Supreme Court’s Com­mis­sion on Chil­dren, Youth and Fam­i­lies, led by Jus­tice Rhonda Wood.

Dur­ing nu­mer­ous board meet­ings, Guh­man has stressed the im­por­tance of work­ing with judges to di­vert kids from the sys­tem and to close some youth lock­ups. She said she wanted to di­rect the money cur­rently set aside for in­car­cer­a­tion back into the com­mu­nity, through ev­i­dence-based pro­grams.

In fis­cal 2017, the year end­ing June 30, 2017, al­most half of the Youth Ser­vices Di­vi­sion’s bud­get went to “res­i­den­tial treat­ment,” or jail­ing kids — about $27.5 mil­lion of its $60 mil­lion bud­get.

Agency fund­ing has re­mained stag­nant for years, and law­mak­ers most re­cently did not ful­fill all of Guh­man’s fund­ing re­quests.

The new re­port notes this ex­pen­di­ture, and rec­om­mends the state “make smarter and more strate­gic in­vest­ments,” such as fo­cus­ing on fewer fa­cil­i­ties, specif­i­cally ones that “hold the great­est po­ten­tial to achieve a mean­ing­ful re­ha­bil­i­ta­tive en­vi­ron­ment.”

Kids spend too much time be­hind bars, the re­port also said a few times. There are de­lays in place­ment, “con­sum­ing ex­pen­sive and scarce re­sources.”

The cen­ter said the youth agency should set clear sen­tenc­ing lim­its, cre­ate treat­ment plans that take into ac­count chil­dren’s in­di­vid­ual strengths and needs, and avoid kick­ing them out for less than se­ri­ous safety is­sues.

But the re­port notes that the agency has made strides in cer­tain ar­eas. For ex­am­ple, con­fined youths have ex­panded ac­cess to men­tal-health and be­hav­ioral-health ser­vices. And it’s now eas­ier for them to make up miss­ing classes and to trans­fer cred­its back to their schools at home.

The re­port also com­mended Ar­kan­sas for run­ning smaller fa­cil­i­ties, rather than larger, more hard­ened in­sti­tu­tional struc­tures. At the same time, of­fi­cials should place kids closer to home, the re­port stated.

The Youth Ser­vices Di­vi­sion has op­er­ated seven ju­ve­nile lock­ups since Jan­uary 2017 and over­sees a con­tract with a Ne­vada-based com­pany that runs the state’s cen­tral in­take cen­ter for ad­ju­di­cated youths near Alexan­der. Guh­man said she hopes to re­turn con­trol of the seven fa­cil­i­ties next year to pri­vate con­trol.

In pre­vi­ous in­ter­views, the direc­tor said that the re­sults from this re­port would guide how state of­fi­cials write their re­quest for bids to run the seven sites. A spokesman for the De­part­ment of Hu­man Ser­vices, which heads the di­vi­sion, could not im­me­di­ately con­firm whether the agency would be­gin writ­ing a new bid re­quest now that the re­port was com­pleted.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.