SIGNING CEREMONY: The governor signs SB 152, flanked by Sen. Missy Irvin (left) and Rep. Charlene Fite (right). BENJAMIN HARDY

A group of female Republican legislators appeared with Governor Hutchinson on Wednesday afternoon to celebrate the signing of five bills, including juvenile justice reform legislation sponsored by Sen. Missy Irvin (R-Mountain View) and Rep. Charlene Fite (R-Van Buren).

The package was branded the “Dream Big Initiative” by the General Assembly’s 21 Republican women. It included bills aiming to encourage more entrepreneurship in child care, to tighten reading instruction standards, to allow local governments to build broadband infrastructure and to assist the UAMS Winthrop P. Rockefeller Cancer Institute in being designated a national research center.

All five passed in recent weeks with broad bipartisan support; as Hutchinson noted today, none received a “no” vote. He praised the leadership of the “incredible lady legislators” comprising the group.

Irvin’s legislation, Senate Bill 152 (now Act 189), requires all juvenile courts in the state to use the same validated risk assessment tool to guide whether a delinquent youth is committed to a jail-like residential lockup or directed to a less severe treatment option in his or her own community. Low-risk misdemeanor offenders could no longer be committed to state custody, and the state would be required to develop a plan to gradually reallocate funds toward community-based programs instead of lockups.

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Hutchinson said the bill was a “signature issue that will be remembered decades from now.”

“Validated independent assessments … make sure that the consequence matches the risk, so that we’re not keeping [youths] too long in a facility. It allows us to rededicate our resources for juvenile reform to the local communities,” the governor said.

Irvin said that the bill would save lives by ensuring that young people “are not ending up in incarceration in our prison system … but that they can actually get the help, the services, the support and the love they need to become great citizens of our state.”

Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families, which has championed juvenile justice reform for years, praised the bill, its sponsors and the governor. But Executive Director Rich Huddleston also said the bill marks the beginning of the reform process, not the end.

After a risk assessment system is selected, juvenile courts must use it properly, which will require staff training. The state Division of Youth Services and must also develop its reinvestment plan and take other steps, as Huddleston outlined in a statement on Arkansas Advocate’s website.

“After the 2019 session is over, the hard work of reform really begins as Arkansas implements the new legislation in the coming years,” Huddleston wrote. He noted that Irvin has filed a bill to extend the tenure of the Youth Justice Reform Board — a temporary panel of juvenile judges and others that helped craft the legislation — to “continue to help guide the reform effort.”

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He also said more legislation will likely be needed in future sessions. “One major challenge in the years ahead: even with the redirection of savings from locking up fewer kids and for shorter periods of time, new resources will undoubtedly be needed to ensure that community services are adequate and equitable in every region of the state. That will not happen overnight. But that is a conversation for another day,” he wrote.

The nonprofits that provide community-focused alternatives to incarceration for youths — ranging from group homes to substance abuse treatment — have said their funding levels aren’t adequate. In theory, as the state reduces the number of kids it incarcerates, that should free up more money for community-based providers. But the state recently said it would contract with an out-of-state company to operate the residential lockups at a higher daily rate than in the past, raising questions about whether there will be substantial savings to reinvest.

Asked after the ceremony if she was concerned about reform being hindered by a lack of resources for community-based providers, Irvin said no. She noted the state has made “innovation grants” available for the providers and said she had “full confidence” juvenile judges would begin to scale back the number of kids being sent to state lockups.

“I think if we allow this time to work, we will realize the savings if we reduce incarcerations — and there’s a proven track record of it,” she said. Irvin pointed to juvenile courts in Jefferson and Faulkner counties, where judges already have been using a risk assessment as part of a pilot program. Those counties have seen a reduction in kids who are jailed or committed to state custody, she said.