On Jan. 23, a group of Republican lawmakers led by state Sen. Missy Irvin (R-Mountain View) filed legislation intended to reduce the number of delinquent youths held in state lockup facilities. If it passes, Senate Bill 152 would be Arkansas’s most significant juvenile justice legislation in years.

SB 152, called the “Reclaim Arkansas Act” by its sponsors, would require all juvenile courts in the state to use the same “validated risk assessment system” to guide whether a youth is committed to a jail-like residential lockup or directed to a less severe treatment option such as a group home or other program in his or her own community. Judges would be barred from committing misdemeanor offenders to the Department of Human Services’ Division of Youth Services’ lockups if they are determined to be low-risk. DYS would also be required to develop a “reinvestment plan” by July 2020 that would reallocate funds now used for locking up kids to community-based alternatives.

Arkansas’s juvenile judges made 467 commitments to DYS lockups in fiscal year 2016, according to the most recent DYS annual report available online. Of those, 37 percent were for misdemeanors and 51 percent were for felonies. The remainder were due to violations of the terms of probation or aftercare.

At a meeting with the press on Jan. 11, Governor Hutchinson said legislation like SB 152 was needed to ensure delinquent youths weren’t “cast away for a lifetime” Hutchinson said, “These are juveniles that have offended the law, that have problems, but we have a responsibility to do all we can to get them back on the right track.”

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Rich Huddleston, director of Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families, said Irvin’s bill would “set Arkansas on a path to true reform.” (Arkansas Advocates is a donor to the Arkansas Nonprofit News Network and in the past has granted ANNN money for juvenile justice reporting.)

“I think it really is a good-faith effort to stop locking up kids who don’t in some cases need to be locked up,” Huddleston said. For years, Arkansas has lagged behind other states in reducing its juvenile incarceration rate, while concern has mounted over poor conditions and instances of abuse at some facilities.

Mandating courts to use the risk assessment will be “important in changing the mindset” of judges accustomed to relying on lockups, Huddleston said. “They’re going to have to submit written findings that really spell out good reasons for why the youth in this case should be locked up. … It’s important legally for its own sake, but I think it’s also really going to shift the thinking of a number of judges.”

Validated risk assessments are already used in some juvenile courts thanks to a pilot program through the state Administrative Office of the Courts. Out of Arkansas’s 75 counties, a total of 19 to date have been trained on using a risk assessment tool and others are in training, according to Jennifer Craun, the AOC’s Juvenile Justice Division director.

Huddleston noted that requiring all courts to use the same instrument will provide “common data throughout the state” to guide future reforms. He cautioned that the state must make sure every court has enough staff to implement the tool properly.

Meanwhile, DYS itself is taking steps to decrease reliance on secure confinement. At the governor’s direction, DYS will soon close two of its eight lockup facilities. The last two youths at the Colt Juvenile Treatment Center in St. Francis County were expected to be transferred elsewhere by Sunday, state Department of Human Services spokeswoman Marci Manley wrote in an email on Thursday. Manley said the agency is also in the process of moving the Colt facility’s 29 remaining staff. A year ago, the lockup held 24 youths.

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DYS expects to close the Dermott Juvenile Treatment Center in Chicot County by July 1. That facility held 32 youths and 40 staff as of last week, Manley wrote. The Dermott lockup has been criticized for unsafe and unsanitary conditions, as detailed in an Arkansas Nonprofit News report last year. Hutchinson announced the Colt and Dermott closures in November.

The legislature’s last attempt at major juvenile justice reform, in 2013, met with failure. A bill called the Close to Home Act, which was also sponsored by Irvin, was defeated in large part due to objections raised by some nonprofit providers that contract with DYS to deliver various services, including community-based treatment programs. (At the time, the lockup facilities were also run by private providers, but the state took over all but one at the end of 2016.)

In contrast, the new legislation is the product of years of meetings between judges, providers, DYS and other juvenile justice stakeholders. It has the backing of a governor whose party holds supermajorities in both chambers of the legislature.

Darryl Rhoda, the president of the Arkansas Youth Service Providers Association, called SB 152 “a very good first step” and said he believed providers and judges were generally supportive of it. “Everybody is pretty much in full agreement [the validated risk assessment] is needed in Arkansas,” he said. Rhoda is the CEO of Youth Bridge, the community-based provider for Northwest Arkansas.

“The last time we had a reform bill, it failed miserably. … There was too much infighting and not enough collaborating,” he said. This time, “my gut feeling is the politics are good behind it.”

Vague on reinvestment

If there is near consensus on requiring courts to use a risk assessment, there is less clarity on the second half of SB 152 — reinvesting in community-based alternatives. For years, funding for such programs has been mostly stagnant, providers say.

Lockups require high staff-to-youth ratios and are expensive to run. The annual cost of housing a single youth at the Dermott and Colt facilities was $52,925 in FY 2016, not counting medical and education expenses. That’s $145 per day per youth. (DHS did not respond to an emailed question about the daily cost of running the Colt facility with 29 staff and just two youths.)

In theory, fewer children locked up should mean more money available for community programs, which are much cheaper. SB 152 requires DYS to develop a reinvestment plan to “redirect savings realized from a reduction in the number of secure out-of-home placements.” That plan should include a description of the method used to calculate savings and criteria for directing those dollars to “evidence-based programs provided by community-based providers,” the bill says.

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But some providers worry that most of the savings could be diverted to a new contract to manage the remaining lockups. DYS plans to hand off the facilities to a private contractor and is currently seeking bids. A request for proposal available on the DHS procurement website shows DYS will offer the new vendor a daily rate between $215-$236 per youth — much more than the $145 per day paid in 2016, when the lockups were last operated by private entities.

“I’m concerned that even if the beds are reduced, the higher unit rate and the higher cost associated with the education and medical services may eat up any savings,” Bonnie Boon, the executive director of Consolidated Youth Services, said.

Consolidated Youth Services provides community-based alternatives for much of Northeast Arkansas. The nonprofit also previously ran the Colt facility and one in Harrisburg before the state took over the lockups from it and another provider at the end of 2016. Boon said her nonprofit’s community-based programs, such as group homes and an emergency shelter, are sorely underfunded and often have a waiting list.

“Judges can’t wait …  so if they don’t go here, they often go to [a county detention center] or they go to DYS,” she said.

Manley, the DHS spokeswoman, said in an email that the rate increase contained in the RFP related to “what we’ll be expecting from the vendor in terms of staff requirements, requirements for treatment teams, in addition to the number of youths that will be in the facilities under the transformation.” She said the agency didn’t yet have projections for cost savings generated from closing the Colt and Dermott lockups.

Rhoda acknowledged DYS may need to pay more to run the lockups. “They feel pressure to raise the standards of care at the ones that will remain open … so the rates are going to be higher than they [were] previously,” he said. He also noted the state has committed some additional money to community-based providers. In November, the governor announced a continuation of $2 million in “innovation grants” for community programs and an extra $750,000 for aftercare in the coming fiscal year.

But, Rhoda said, that doesn’t make up for years of flat funding and rising costs for community programs. “From my perspective, we just don’t have enough money in the system,” he said. “We’re still spending way more on this small group of kids [in the lockups] than we are on all the others.”

If the state succeeds in sending fewer youths to lockups, he pointed out, community providers will have to pick up the slack. That may require more programs such as group homes or emergency shelters, which must maintain require high staff-to-client ratios. “The concern I have is that when you quit committing kids as much, then there’s going to be even more higher-need kids needing intensive programs … and intensive programs cost more,” Rhoda said. Community-based providers have been “pushing hard” for the legislature to specify how the reinvestment plan will work, he added. 

Asked Jan. 11 if savings from closing the DYS lockups would go toward community-based alternatives, Hutchinson did not answer directly. “It never works in an immediate transfer. That’s a gradual process,” the governor responded.

He then noted the importance of other services outside the juvenile justice system, such as mental health providers and school counselors. “We have to have in local communities adequate mental health providers that can deal with addiction, that can deal with mental health issues,” Hutchinson said.

Sen. Irvin had not responded to requests for comment for this story as of Monday.

This reporting is courtesy of the Arkansas Nonprofit News Network, an independent, nonpartisan news project dedicated to producing journalism that matters to Arkansans. Find out more at arknews.org.