YOUTH IN LOCK-UPS (file photo): At the now closed Dermott Juvenile Treatment Facility. BRIAN CHILSON

It’s a fact of life: Children are different. Science tells us that human brains don’t fully develop until 25 years of age, with the parts of the brain that control reasoning developing last.

But too often our criminal legal system treats children like adults with harsh punishments that further traumatize already-vulnerable young people and trap them in a lifelong cycle of re-incarceration.

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The good news is that Arkansas is making progress to reduce youth incarceration and move away from a failed “tough on crime” approach to juvenile justice. After being one of the only Southern states to increase its population of incarcerated young people from 2000 to 2014, Arkansas is now moving in the right direction, thanks to the work of dedicated advocates and officials and the passage of Act 189 in 2019.

Over the past three years, the number of children incarcerated in Arkansas’s state-run juvenile facilities has dropped by a third. Youth detention centers in Dermott and Colt have been closed, and young people sentenced after May 1, 2019, are now receiving individualized treatment plans instead of a one-size-fits-all approach. Moving forward, state officials plan to increase the use of community-based services and other alternatives to incarceration.

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Now we need to build on this momentum. Our Smart Justice Blueprint recommends a series of reforms that will further strengthen our families and communities by protecting the rights of every child who comes in contact with our criminal justice system.

Specifically, our Blueprint recommends:

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  • Young people should always have access to counsel, and neither they nor their parents should ever be allowed to waive that right.
  • Arkansas should require study and transparency into the number of cases of abused and neglected children who also have a delinquency case open, and why.
  • The General Assembly should limit detention and prohibit the imprisonment of children in most — if not all — cases, and establish a presumption to use diversion or other alternative programs instead.
  • All children under 18 should be initially charged in the juvenile division, requiring the state to carry the burden of proving the need to transfer the case to the criminal division.
  • The General Assembly should raise the age at which a young person is treated as a juvenile to age 20.

More steps should also be taken to increase the number of qualified, available foster home placements, provide community-based services for children and families, reduce the number of children confined to county-run juvenile detention centers and combat police intervention in school-rules matters. Black and brown children are more likely to be subjected to harsh school discipline policies that fuel a school-to-prison pipeline and worsen our mass incarceration crisis.

Protecting the basic rights and human dignity of vulnerable children is a value we should all share. By continuing to build on its progress, Arkansas can break the vicious cycle of re-incarceration and build stronger families and communities for all.

Children belong in their communities, not in cages.

Holly Dickson is the interim executive director and legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas.

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