Ripe for Juvenile Justice Reform in Arkansas

Arkansas Nonprofit News Network

This is part one of a two-part series.

The number of delinquent youth remanded to the Arkansas Division of Youth Services during the fiscal year that ended in July was the lowest in at least two decades, according to figures recently released by the DYS.

Juvenile judges committed 451 youth to state custody in fiscal year 2017 — a 14 percent decrease from 2015, when commitments to the DYS reached 526.

The commitment rate does not reflect every youth confined in a facility in Arkansas. It excludes kids detained in county-level juvenile detention centers, as well as those who were transferred to the adult criminal justice system. Nonetheless, the decline in DYS commitments, which appears to be driven by local efforts in several of the state's most populous counties, has some advocates cautiously hopeful that Arkansas may be poised to finally overhaul its juvenile justice system.

Over the last two decades, most states have dramatically reduced the number of youth locked away in secure facilities, including Arkansas' neighbors. Texas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Tennessee, Mississippi and Louisiana all lowered their juvenile confinement rates by double digits from 1997 to 2015, according to the U.S. Department of Justice's Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

Arkansas' rate decreased by just 8 percent over that period, despite an emerging consensus that confinement is usually a counterproductive and overly expensive response to delinquency. The question now is whether policymakers can translate recent local successes to statewide reform.

"There are parts of the state where things continue to be a problem and others where we're making great progress," DYS Director Betty Guhman told the Arkansas Nonprofit News Network. The DYS is a division of the state Department of Human Services.

A top aide to Gov. Asa Hutchinson with a background in social work, Guhman previously served as chief of staff during Hutchinson's tenures in Congress and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. The governor named her to run the DYS on an interim basis in July 2016 and made the appointment permanent that September. Guhman seems to channel Hutchinson's preference for cautious, deliberative incrementalism rather than bold calls to immediate action — but she is quietly aiming for big changes.

"The whole juvenile code needs to be revisited," she said. "Do you want to start picking at this or this or this — or do you want a whole rewrite? I think most everybody is supportive of a complete rewrite. ... We're really trying to do that for the [2019 legislative] session, working with judges, providers, other advocates. ... Let's see what we can all agree on and try to move forward."

"We" means three principal players. First, the DYS, which oversees Arkansas' eight residential juvenile facilities, as well as diversion and aftercare programs. Second, the juvenile judges whose courts constitute the "front door" to the system. Third, the nonprofit providers that contract with the DYS to deliver services, from managing residential facilities to administering diversion and aftercare.

In recent years, reformers in Arkansas have largely focused their efforts on the county level rather than the state, partly because of a lack of continuity in DYS leadership since former director Ron Angel retired in 2013. Angel actively pushed for legislation intended to reduce the use of confinement by steering funding toward community-based programs and away from secure facilities. The effort foundered in the state Senate, however, and Angel departed soon afterward.

Angel's successor, Tracy Steele, lasted in the job for a little over a year, as did the next appointee, Marcus Devine. Commitments to the DYS, which declined during Angel's six-year tenure, rose from 2013 to 2015.

Pat Arthur, a lawyer formerly with the National Center for Youth Law, worked closely with Angel from 2007 to 2013 to craft reforms aimed at reducing confinement. "When Ron Angel was in charge of DYS ... there was a genuine effort to downsize facilities," she said. "I worked my whole time there trying to reduce the beds."

"All of the prisons there should be closed," she added, referring to the DYS residential facilities. "They're all antiquated, large institutions that are being shown around the country, in practice and also through research, to be ineffective in providing the kind of rehabilitative programming that youth in trouble with the law need to get back on a positive track and contribute to their community."

After Angel left the DYS, Arthur said, "there was just not the same kind of commitment ... to changing the system to one that relies less on incarceration and more on keeping youth in programs that work in the community. There was lip service perhaps, but nothing concretely that was done to advance it."

Arthur retired last December and said she was not familiar with developments in Arkansas in the past year. But other advocates expressed optimism about the agency's direction under Guhman — who, unlike her two predecessors, is expected to stick around.

"I think there's reason to be hopeful, but I think there's a lot of frustration — among not just advocates but folks within the system themselves — about the pace of change," Jason Szanyi, a deputy director at the D.C.-based Center for Children's Law and Policy, said.

Since 2013, Szanyi has worked with juvenile courts in two Northwest Arkansas counties, Benton and Washington, to implement a program called the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative, or JDAI, which has helped reduce detention in favor of community-based alternatives such as mentorships, family therapy and evening reporting centers. JDAI is active in more than 300 sites throughout the country, and Pulaski County will begin implementing the program in 2018.

In other jurisdictions, the use of a new risk-assessment tool has reduced confinement by helping judges identify various needs and risks of youth. Faulkner County Circuit Judge Troy Braswell said the screening process has been "a game changer" since it was rolled out in his court in 2016 as part of a pilot program.

Between 2015 and 2016, Braswell said, "we cut juvenile confinement by 23 percent in our district. And then for the fiscal year, as far as DYS commitments, we cut our commitment by 31 percent." He noted that the juvenile crime rate seems to have dropped as well: "We also had a 7 percent reduction in charges filed by the prosecutor.

"Kids are still going to get detained when it's appropriate, but that can't always be the answer," Braswell said. "As courts individually, and then as a state, we've got to do a better job of providing services to the family earlier on in the case." Braswell also chairs the Youth Justice Reform Board, a body created by the governor to make recommendations on juvenile justice issues.

Such reforms have reduced both the number of youths detained locally in juvenile detention centers and those committed to DYS facilities — but only among those courts that have embraced them. Many other judges continue to lock up large numbers of kids each year, meaning confinement numbers have remained high for the state as a whole.

"Arkansas has not seen the same level of reduction in commitment to state custody as many other states," Szanyi said. "There's a lot of inertia in terms of how things have been done in the state, and how they've been done from county to county. That can be tough to counter without a coordinated effort to reform the system. ... You need someone at DYS who has a long-term vision for juvenile justice reform.

"Director Guhman is someone who has a longstanding relationship with the governor and understands the issues," Szanyi said. "Our hope is that ... with strong leadership at DYS, we can start tackling some of the issues that need to be looked at in order for Arkansas to see some very significant and beneficial changes in the system."

Tom Masseau is the executive director of Disability Rights Arkansas, an advocacy group that performs regular observations at the eight juvenile treatment centers and correctional facilities run by the DYS. He attributes the recent decrease in commitments mostly to individual judges choosing community-based alternatives; broader statewide reform has remained more talk than action.

"The holdup is that everybody likes the idea of reform, but nobody wants to roll up their sleeves and do it," he said. "I think when Ron [Angel] left, everything just kind of fell apart, and you had some directors who were appointed who had the best intentions but for whatever reason just couldn't move it forward. Now, I think with Betty Guhman in there — at least based on my meetings with her, she seems very committed. ... It's just contingent upon the legislature giving leeway to the division.

"I see us moving more toward some serious reforms," Masseau said. "At least, that's what we're going to be pushing for."

Braswell said the push for reform must continue at the local level, but he, too, sees new potential for the state to lead rather than follow.

"I think up to this point, DYS has been doing what the juvenile justice system has been doing," he said. "In my conversations with Director Guhman, I think they understand they're going to have to be more targeted in their contracts with the providers and making sure that judges and providers are working together to provide the services that are evidence-based and have a track record of working. To me, they understand that things have to change."

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

Kids in Isolation: Locked Away in Dermott

Arkansas Nonprofit News Network

This is part two of a two-part series. Read part one here.

Around four months ago, Benjamin Knuckles’ 16-year-old son tried to escape from the Dermott Juvenile Treatment Center. As punishment, he was driven up the road to the Dermott Juvenile Correctional Facility, a nearby facility for 18- to 21-year-olds, and placed alone in a single-cell unit. He remained confined there for more than 24 hours.

“It’s supposed to be a treatment center,” Knuckles said. “As far as I’m concerned, my son is not in treatment. He’s in jail. That’s the bottom line, he’s just locked up. I’m the one who turned him in to the police. I was trying to save my son. I regret it every day. Now all I’ve done is turn him into more of a criminal. He ain’t done nothing but learned to be locked up.”

The two facilities at Dermott are among eight juvenile lockup facilities overseen by the Arkansas Department of Human Services’ Division of Youth Services, all of which are intended to be rehabilitative rather than punitive. Scott Tanner, state juvenile ombudsman at the Arkansas Public Defender Commission, noted the practice in Dermott that Knuckles’ son experienced in a recent letter to DYS director Betty Guhman that expressed concern about the use and oversight of isolation at DYS facilities. Tanner described children being confined at the Correctional Facility in cells for “indeterminate periods with ill-defined supports and services.”

In one extreme case last year, a 17-year-old youth at Dermott was confined in isolation for 23-24 hours per day for a period totaling more than 90 days, according to records examined by Disability Rights Arkansas, an advocacy group that does regular observations at the juvenile lockups. More typically, youths would spend a day or a few days confined, according to DRA observers, let out only to shower and use the bathroom.

The practice of confining someone alone to a cell or room has many names — isolation, room confinement, segregation, seclusion, restrictive housing, solitary confinement — and definitions can vary. Tanner’s letter notes the definition of isolation used by a toolkit developed by the Council of Juvenile Correctional Administrators: “any time a youth is physically and/or socially isolated for punishment or administrative purposes.” Youth advocates say that the use of isolation in juvenile facilities should be strictly limited, arguing that the practice is counterproductive, disrupts education and therapy services that facilities are required to provide, and can potentially be dangerous. According to federal data, more than half of suicides in such facilities occur while youths are isolated alone in a room. “It has a detrimental effect on a youth’s treatment, education, physical health and mental health,” DRA executive director Tom Masseau said.

The two facilities at Dermott, along with five other juvenile lockup facilities, were abruptly turned over to direct state control in January after efforts by the state to contract them out to a new vendor were blocked in the legislature late last year. The governor announced in August that the state would solicit contractors and they would be placed back in private control as soon as next July.

The Arkansas Juvenile Assessment and Treatment Center, the eighth and largest facility, is currently run by a for-profit company — Tanner’s letter, as well as emails he sent throughout the summer, also raised concerns about room confinement at that facility. The communications were acquired from the Public Defender Commission by a Freedom of Information Act request; Tanner declined to comment for this story. The Arkansas Nonprofit News Network previously reported on the practice of room confinement at AJATC, which typically occurs in a building described by one youth as “like the prison.”

Since the Arkansas Nonprofit News Network first asked DYS officials about isolation in May, the division has made efforts to streamline practices and standards around room confinement at all facilities, state officials said.

“We can’t deny that things in the past have been done, behaviors and management practices that had we been more involved in the day-to-day running probably wouldn’t have continued,” said DHS spokeswoman Brandi Hinkle. “Since we have taken over seven of the facilities, it’s been very eye-opening.”

According to DRA, the practices they observed at Dermott continued after the DYS took over the facilities. But DYS officials said that the division has established clearer protocols at Dermott over the last few months in order to limit the frequency and duration of isolation. They said that while youths at Dermott may “perhaps” have been confined for days at a time without adequate services previously, that is not the current practice.

The DYS relies on American Correctional Association protocols for the facilities it oversees. ACA standards limit room confinement for juveniles to five days, stating that “the time a juvenile spends in disciplinary confinement is proportionate to the offense committed,” and establish parameters for administrative review. The DYS does not have an official policy on isolation; a policy was drafted more than two years ago, but, despite urging from youth advocates, it has never been promulgated. The lack of an official policy has caused confusion and inconsistent practices at facilities, Masseau said.

Nevertheless, that draft policy — which discourages isolation lasting longer than four hours but leaves open the possibility of confinement lasting up to five days — is used as a set of guidelines by which the DYS expects facilities to abide. Though there is still no timeline to promulgate it, on Aug. 18, Amy Webb, chief communications officer at the DHS, wrote in an email, “DYS is making the [draft policy] standard at all facilities.”

Tom Masseau, executive director of Disability Rights Arkansas

In his letter to Guhman, Tanner called for data tracking — in line with national standards for juvenile justice — to ensure best practices around the use of isolation and enable more intensive monitoring and review. The DYS does not track aggregate data on room confinement and was unable to provide information about how often the practice has been used at Dermott, but DRA observers said it has been fairly common.

The practice of moving kids who commit infractions at the Dermott Treatment Center to the correctional facility in order to confine them in single-cell units there raised an additional red flag, Masseau said: the placement of younger youths at a facility mandated by the state to house 18- to 21-year-olds. Asked whether this was a concern, Webb wrote, “Determined on a case-by-case basis.”

In some cases, a room where an older resident normally sleeps has been used as a cell to put a younger child in isolation. DRA observers have seen older youths with their bedding dragged into a common area, where they sleep for the duration of the younger child’s stay in isolation. Meanwhile, isolation has also been used for the 18- to 21-year-old youths at the correctional facility; in that case, they would typically be confined to their regularly assigned rooms.

At one DRA observation this year, several younger children were confined in isolation in rooms at the correctional facility, and the lights in these rooms were turned out in the middle of the day so that the children were confined in darkness. Staffers told DRA observers that the children were napping, but the observers could see them through the slit in the door, staring back at them in the dark, wide awake. Asked about such a practice, Webb said that while it “perhaps” happened in the past, it was not happening now. “We are not OK with that approach,” she said.

Before the DYS takeover in January, the nonprofit South Arkansas Youth Services ran the facilities at Dermott. Last year, one youth was placed into room confinement for a period totaling more than 90 days. The youth, who had a disability, did not receive educational instruction or programming, according to a letter sent by DRA in August 2016. According to logs pulled by DRA, the youth was isolated for 23-24 hours per day; some days he got recreation time out of the cell, some days he did not. In a response letter, South Arkansas Youth Services defended the practice of room confinement and disputed the accuracy of DRA’s information.

“He was identified as being violent,” said Marq Golden, the DYS assistant director for residential programs. “They made several attempts where they tried to move him back and he was still identified as violent. They provided him services [while confined at the correctional facility].”

While Masseau said that a situation involving near total isolation over three months was an outlier, DRA staffers both this year and in previous years have observed room confinement at Dermott lasting for significant periods of time. Youths put into isolation would often sleep in the cell overnight, Masseau said, sometimes for multiple nights. “We’ve seen them up there for as little as a few hours, but the usual is going to be between one night and four nights,” he said. “If it happens on a Friday, they almost always keep them over the weekend up there.” Youths given this punishment have typically been in the room the entire time, with little to no services provided, let out only to use the restroom or shower (and not necessarily let out to shower every day).

Webb said that this description of room confinement “perhaps” happened previously, but is not happening currently. The DYS has now implemented an approach, she said, in which staff members at Dermott call on-call DYS staffers at the central office to notify them of the decision to use room confinement.

“Our staff has been told not to simply say OK, but to have a more substantive discussion about this decision to ensure it is not being done out of anger or irritation and to ensure youth are confined for the shortest amount of time possible to address the issue,” Webb said.

Webb said that DYS facilities, including Dermott, should now be following the draft policy in terms of what services are provided to youths who are put in room confinement. Following ACA protocols, the draft policy states, “Residents must be afforded living conditions and privileges as the general population.” Asked specifically about what sorts of education, therapy, recreation or other services youths in room confinement receive at Dermott, the DYS did not provide any additional information.

Room confinement on site has been much rarer at facilities other than AJATC and the two at Dermott, according to DRA observers, likely because most lack highly secure single-cell rooms. However, they may use mechanical restraints in response to major infractions. According to DRA observers, at least one facility, at Lewisville, has placed shackled youths outdoors for hours at a time, regardless of weather, as punishment for severe misbehaviors. Webb said that “placing restraints on youth and placing them outdoors … is unacceptable and that was made very clear to staff back in March. That is one of the things we learned was happening once we took over the day-to-day operations, and it is not an approach or technique that we approve.” Webb added that the DYS prefers alternative de-escalation interventions rather than using mechanical restraints at all, and next month the division will commence training all staff on safer crisis intervention and behavior management techniques.

Facilities may also remove a youth from the site to be temporarily placed for a few days in one of five county-run juvenile detention centers with which the state has agreements — a practice referred to as a “timeout.” In that case, the youth could be confined to a cell at one of the JDCs, which operate under a standard that allows room confinement for up to 23 hours per day if the youth is deemed a safety or security risk. Golden said that JDCs should follow the same expectations that the DYS had for its own facilities in terms of room confinement and noted that the DYS Quality Assurance team does conduct some oversight, but added, “We have agreements with them, but we don’t necessarily tell them exactly what they have to do.”

According to Tanner’s Aug. 23 letter, there were 11 youths housed in JDCs due to behavioral timeouts. The strategy of using JDCs to separate youths who commit behavioral infractions comes with pitfalls, Tanner wrote. “Youth placed in isolation, especially in a county detention center, can be subjected to revocation of privileges such as reduced family visitation and limited access to educational programming and clinical services,” he wrote. “Youth placed in detention centers in Arkansas can also be subject or witness to pepper spray.” Youth subjected to JDC timeouts also tend to end up having longer stays at the DYS treatment centers, Tanner wrote. “All of those identified consequences are counter to the interests of the youth we serve, to the communities to which they will return, and to the taxpayers of Arkansas.”

In a 2015 report, the Council of Juvenile Correctional Administrators advised that “isolating youths … as a consequence for negative behavior undermines the rehabilitative goals of youth corrections.” In his letter, Tanner noted that the CJCA report “summarizes research demonstrating that isolation … actually has negative public safety consequences, does not reduce violence and likely increases recidivism.” In addition to better data tracking, Tanner suggested a number of strategies to reduce the use of isolation, including developing clearer policies for the use and monitoring of the practice, developing alternative behavior management options and responses, and conducting additional training and development for staff toward policies and principles regarding the use of isolation.

In the interim, Tanner wrote, “DYS must improve its monitoring and accountability when youth are removed from the general population.” He proposed that any removal for disciplinary purposes, especially from a school setting, should be approved by the DYS; that each individual case of separation from the general population should be monitored, including the reasons for the removal, its duration and what interventions were attempted; that the division needed to better assess and monitor the conditions of rooms or cells where children were confined in isolation; and that the division needed to analyze data on room confinement to identify patterns and ensure best practices.

“These practices must be governed by strong policy and effective monitoring,” Tanner wrote. “We, as a state, are failing at both.”

In an accompanying email, Tanner wrote that he hoped that “by further examination of these and other issues, DHS will be better positioned in determining what it needs to ask in its upcoming [request for proposal] process” in contracting out the seven facilities currently under direct state control.

“Broadly speaking, running the facilities has taught us an important lesson that we have taken to heart,” Webb said. “Once these go back out on contract, our monitoring needs to be more robust to ensure policies and procedures are being followed. We are committed to doing that.”

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

Arkansas Kids in Isolation: Locked Away in Alexander

Arkansas Nonprofit News Network

This is part one of a two-part series. Read part two here.

In April, a 15-year-old boy housed at the Arkansas Juvenile Assessment and Treatment Center spent the entire day alone in a small cell. Michael (the names of juveniles in this story have been changed to protect their anonymity) was put in a hold by a guard and taken out of his classroom at the facility's school. As he repeatedly said, "I am not resisting" and "no aggression" — a phrase used at AJATC to indicate compliance — Michael was brought across campus to Building 19.

Once used as a maximum-security facility to house a program for serious juvenile offenders, part of Building 19 is now used to temporarily segregate youths from the regular population at AJATC, in some cases confining them in single-cell units. Michael was immediately locked in one of these units, empty other than a metal bed with a mat on it and a wool comforter. Typically, he said, youths confined to a cell in Building 19 may only be let out to use the bathroom. This time, he was not let out at all from around noon until nighttime, when he was taken back to his regular living quarters.

"I was in my cell the whole time," he said. "I was calling the staff's name and they wouldn't let me out. I had to pee in my dinner tray after I got done eating."

Rite of Passage, the Nevada-based, for-profit company that contracts with the state to run the facility, declined to respond to specific stories like Michael's, citing privacy concerns.

AJATC, located near Alexander, houses more than 100 youths. It is the largest of eight juvenile lockup facilities in the state overseen by the Division of Youth Services, part of the Arkansas Department of Human Services. These facilities, known as treatment centers, are intended to provide therapy and rehabilitation rather than being punitive, and are required to provide education that meets state standards. AJATC has a long history of trouble, including mistreatment of children in its care. When Rite of Passage was brought in as a new contractor in 2016, it promised a fresh start, telling the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, "We're not interested in running jailhouses. We're interested in running schoolhouses."

According to multiple youths, former staffers and others, confining a youth alone in a cell in Building 19 or in another room on campus has been regularly used at AJATC as a disciplinary response to nonviolent misbehavior in class, as well as for more serious misconduct, with the youth sometimes staying there for much of the day. If a youth is deemed to be a danger, the practice is sometimes used for a period of multiple days. According to Rite of Passage, the facility ended the practice of room confinement as a response to classroom misbehavior in June. Under current policy, the company's attorneys said, room confinement is only used for certain major infractions, for a maximum of 72 hours. They said that youths in room confinement still have access to services such as education and therapy.

In a letter in August to Division of Youth Services director Betty Guhman, Scott Tanner, the state juvenile ombudsman at the Arkansas Public Defender Commission, raised alarms about the practice and oversight of isolation in the state's juvenile lockup facilities. "These practices must be governed by strong policy and effective monitoring," Tanner wrote. "We, as a state, are failing at both." Tanner cited research that for juveniles, "isolation ... actually has negative public safety consequences, does not reduce violence and likely increases recidivism."

"It's a very risky, dangerous practice," said Jennifer Lutz, an attorney for the Center for Children's Law and Policy in Washington, D.C., and the campaign manager for Stop Solitary for Kids, a partnership between four national juvenile justice reform organizations. The research, Lutz said, shows that putting youths in such situations can cause serious psychological and emotional harm, exacerbate mental illness or post-traumatic stress responses and increase risk of self-harm. She pointed to federal data published by the U.S. Department of Justice that found that more than half of suicides in juvenile facilities occur while youths are isolated alone in a room, and more than 60 percent of youths who commit suicide in custody had a history of being subjected to the practice. There is no evidence, Lutz said, that isolation improves the safety and security of juvenile lockup institutions, and may actually increase violent behavior.

Tanner's letter follows months of communication with the DYS and Rite of Passage staff in which he expressed concerns about the use of room confinement at AJATC. In emails, Tanner described the practice as "essentially social isolation." The communications were acquired from the Public Defender Commission by a Freedom of Information Act request; Tanner declined to comment for this story.

Referencing one youth with severe behavioral problems, Tanner wrote, "Finding a way to effectively engage him is key. Keeping him locked in a room is only adding fuel to his rage." Tanner repeatedly expressed the concern that Rite of Passage's internal policies were not addressing the practices he had witnessed. "There is nothing in this policy that adequately describes what I have observed of youth being placed in a locked unit, in a single room cell behind a locked door away from the general milieu," he wrote.

An email Tanner sent in August shows that he attempted to access individual records of youths he had seen confined in Building 19 during recent visits to the facility — two of them for longer than 72 hours — to assess how Building 19 was functioning in practice, including whether youths sent there were being provided appropriate education and therapy.

Tanner found few answers, the correspondence indicates. The records were months out of date or nonexistent. (Tanner wrote that these gaps in the records "caused concern beyond my initial scope of inquiry.") There was no information about what caused youths to be sent to Building 19, the amount of time they spent in room confinement or what services were provided to them. In some cases, despite the fact that these youths were assigned disciplinary room confinement in July, the most recent incident report on file was in May; in other cases, there was no incident report at all. One appeared to have therapist progress notes before and after the period of confinement, but none during. Another, identified as a student with special education needs, only had a note indicating that the student was not present in group therapy due to being placed in Building 19.

Although Rite of Passage operates AJATC, the DYS is ultimately responsible for the youths at the facility. DYS facilities abide by a protocol in accordance with the American Correctional Association, but the division itself does not currently have an official policy on room confinement; a policy was drafted more than two years ago, but it has never been promulgated.

In his letter to Guhman, Tanner called for data tracking of room confinement — in line with national standards for juvenile justice — to ensure best practices around the use of isolation and enable more intensive monitoring and review. Currently, DYS does not track aggregate data on room confinement and was unable to provide information about how often the practice is used at AJATC or other locations. Any situation that results in room confinement should be noted narratively on an incident report sent to the DYS, but the practice itself is not tracked in the agency's data system.

"The lack of data collected by DYS has been an ongoing issue," said Tom Masseau, executive director of Disability Rights Arkansas, an advocacy group that does regular observations at the juvenile lockups.

"We are having a number of conversations about changes that should happen within the Division of Youth Services and reviewing all policies, and that may be among changes we make," said Amy Webb, chief communications officer at the Department of Human Services. "But because there is not a separate tracking report, that does not mean that we don't monitor this. All incident reports are reviewed by our staff."

Thus far in 2017, DYS staff have yet to identify a single improper use of room confinement requiring further investigation or review.


The practice of confining someone alone to a cell or room has many names — isolation, room confinement, segregation, seclusion, restrictive housing, solitary confinement — and each term can have varying definitions.

"One of the major problems with advocacy in this area is there isn't one single nationally accepted definition of solitary confinement," Lutz said. "In the juvenile justice system, that term sets off alarm bells for the folks who work in facilities and run those agencies because they're concerned that it's associated with harsher adult practices." Stop Solitary for Kids defines solitary confinement as "involuntary placement of a youth alone in a cell, room, or other area for any reason other than as a temporary response to behavior that threatens immediate physical harm."

Rite of Passage objected to terms such as "isolation," preferring the phrase "room time." The company also objected to referring to a cell in which a youth is confined alone as a "solitary" room. By email, Rite of Passage's legal counsel wrote, "solitary confinement and isolation are not practices used by RoP in its operations at AJATC. ... There are serious and negative connotations attached to both of those terms, none of which apply to RoP's treatment of the youth in its care." While youth are sometimes locked alone in a cell in Building 19, Rite of Passage noted that staffers and other youths would be present in the building. A youth confined in Building 19 would still have access to normal programing, such as education, recreation and therapy, the company said. Asked specifically what that programming would entail in the context of room confinement, Rite of Passage did not respond.

"The purpose of the removal and placement of the youth in Building 19 is not to isolate them, but to change their environment based upon clinical or behavioral program needs," Rite of Passage attorneys wrote in an email. They described Building 19 as "a dorm-like setting but with enhanced staffing."


Some youths housed at AJATC have a different view. "It's like the prison," said Jason, another 15-year-old resident. Both Jason and Michael, the teenager put in a cell in April, said they had been confined in a cell that had blood and urine clearly visible on the floor and wall.

"It's everywhere," Jason said. "It was just disgusting in there." When the boys complained, they were moved to another cell, but they said that nothing was immediately done to clean up the problem cell. Jason said that if he winds up in a cell in Building 19, he just tries to sleep. "There ain't nothing else to do," he said.

Michael said that in March, over a period of two weeks, he spent at least five hours a day confined to a cell in Building 19 as punishment for refusing to have his hair cut. He was exploring Islam and associated letting his hair grow out with his interest in the faith. On school days, he said, he would be brought to the cell after classes, from 4:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.; on weekends, he would be confined to the cell all day. Although Rite of Passage declined to comment on specific stories, it disputed that a youth would ever have been subjected to room confinement for refusing a haircut.

The boys said that over the past year, the most common use of room confinement came in response to classroom misbehavior (unless a more serious infraction is involved, that practice has now been discontinued after a policy change in June, according to Rite of Passage). Students who were seriously disruptive in class might be sent to an in-school suspension classroom. If they continued to misbehave in ISS, they could be sent to Building 19, where they could be confined to a cell. Rite of Passage said that aggregate data on the number of times room confinement was used in response to such scenarios was not available.

In a telephone interview in May, Michael Cantrell, executive director of the southeastern region for Rite of Passage, acknowledged this practice, which he described as a last resort, but denied that the purpose was punitive. He described it as an effort to remove kids from an audience. "I wouldn't call it punishment. That's draconian," he said. "It's a space that kids can go for an hour, two hours, chill out, relax, get themselves together and get back to class."

However, a pair of therapists who left their positions at AJATC earlier this year (before the June policy change), said that room confinement was used as a standard punishment for acting up in class, and that once a student was taken to Building 19, he would generally not return for the rest of the school day.

"They absolutely used it as a punitive measure," one therapist said. "If you piss off staff members or act a fool in school, you go to Building 19. If you get kicked out of class, out of ISS, you go directly to Building 19 and you sit in a cell all day. You don't really come out except to go to the bathroom. Then whenever school is over, group [therapy] is over, everything is done, then you go back to your cottage [the regular living quarters] and you would typically have early bedtime. They'll bring you dinner to your room but you'll stay in your room the rest of the night."

Sometimes, the former AJATC therapists said, guards would pull the bed mat out of the cell in Building 19 so that youths only have the metal frame of the cot to sit or lie on. The therapists said that, during their time working for Rite of Passage, Building 19 was overused. "If you have a kid who is being extremely aggressive and violent, then to calm down is not necessarily a bad thing," one said. "I think that is excessive when you don't allow the kid to recover, when they can't go back to school for the rest of the day. If this happens at 8 o'clock in the morning, you're SOL."

As with the statements made by the youths above, Rite of Passage, through its legal counsel, declined to respond directly to any specific allegations. "Those who work from the standpoint of misinformation, rumors and inadequate information harm the process and ability to keep all safe," the company's attorneys wrote.

Removing a youth from the classroom to confine him in Building 19 or elsewhere could create a federal legal issue under the Individuals with Disabilities Act if he has a disability, Masseau said. "If [the misbehavior] is a manifestation of disabilities, you can't just change his placement because he's acting up. You need to put in behavior supports or modify his programming in whatever way allows the child to obtain their free and appropriate public education."

"If a youth has a disability the Special Ed department will ensure his or her needs are met, and may include the use of services within Building 19," Rite of Passage attorneys stated.


Whatever name it goes by, youth advocates argue that room confinement should be strictly limited in juvenile facilities, and even short periods of confinement can be counterproductive and harmful for children. "It has a detrimental effect on a youth's treatment, education, physical health and mental health," Masseau said. "Every national standard I've read says that it should never be used as a punitive measure, that it should only be used when the kid's actively a danger to himself or others, and even then calls for frequent review. It's all geared toward minimizing the amount of time a kid is removed from the normal environment."

"It's not helping kids emerge from facilities better equipped than when they entered," Lutz said. "Unfortunately, it's been the tool that's been used for so long that staff and facilities can no longer see how ineffective it is."

Regulation on the issue of room confinement for juveniles in the state has long been murky. DHS administrative code, which has the force of law, contains more stringent limits than what has been the practice at some facilities ("it's unclear who, if anyone, actually enforces this code," Masseau said).

While the DYS has no official policy on the use of room confinement, the division did develop a policy in 2015 at the prompting of Disability Rights Arkansas. Although it was never promulgated, Marq Golden, the DYS assistant director for residential programs, said the draft policy nonetheless served as a baseline set of expectations for both outside vendors and state staff.

Golden also said that the DYS requires facilities to comply with American Correctional Association (ACA) standards. Those standards limit room confinement for juveniles to five days, stating that "the time a juvenile spends in disciplinary confinement is proportionate to the offense committed," and establish parameters for administrative review. "They have to be accredited by ACA so that kind of secures us in that aspect," Golden said. Although the contract requires it within one year of the start date, Rite of Passage, which took over in August 2016, has not yet secured ACA accreditation for its management of AJATC; it is expected to be accredited by April 2018.

The DYS draft policy notes the five-day maximum on room confinement for juveniles set by ACA standards, but states that even emergency isolations (a term that is not defined) should generally be limited to four hours. It leaves open the possibility of disciplinary room confinement, but suggests it should be brief, without specifying precisely what that means.

"Our bottom line is this: Room confinement should not be done out of anger or simple irritation," Webb said. "It should be done out of necessity."

However, Rite of Passage policy on the duration of room confinement is markedly different than the DYS' recommendation that room confinement typically shouldn't exceed four hours. The company's current policy is that room confinement will last a minimum of four hours and a maximum of 72 hours, Rite of Passage counsel said. The company could not provide any information about the average duration of such room confinements or how often they lasted more than 24 hours.

Golden said that the DYS draft policy was "written broadly to address a wide variety of scenarios, and those vendors such as RoP have to address the protocols beneath that to address those types of scenarios. When you write a policy like this, it is written more as a general guideline and then those who abide within that have to create the specific rules."

Masseau said it was necessary for the DYS to promulgate an official policy on room confinement and isolation. "The failure of the Division to do so has resulted in confusion and inconsistent practice throughout the facilities," he wrote in an email. "Staff are untrained in the appropriate response methods in the event a youth needs a time out, often triggering further incident. Without an official policy, there is no requirement that the staff and facility officials follow generally accepted guidelines to protect the health and safety of the youth. And in turn, there is no method for enforcement of or accountability for those staff who deviate from those generally accepted guidelines, because that is all that they are — guidelines."

Webb said that the DYS "recognizes that it needs to be promulgated and we are in the process of getting that going." Asked about a timeline, Golden said, "I don't know a specific timeline within a year."

National standards are generally moving away from punitive isolation practices. "In very rare situations, a juvenile may be separated from others as a temporary response to behavior that poses a serious and immediate risk of physical harm to any person," a 2016 U.S. Department of Justice report recommended. "Even in such cases, the placement should be brief, designed as a 'cool down' period, and done only in consultation with a mental health professional." The Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative, which is supported by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, states that even in an emergency situation, isolation should never exceed four hours; at that point, a youth should be transferred to a mental health facility or medical unit. A 2015 report developed by the Council of Juvenile Correctional Administrators (CJCA) advised that "isolating youths ... as a consequence for negative behavior undermines the rehabilitative goals of youth corrections."

Ron Angel, who served as director of the DYS from 2007 to 2013, said he should have discontinued the use of Building 19 (at that time used to house sex offenders) altogether. "I should have gone ahead and done away with that concept, because it was prison," Angel said. "You can quote me on that — if I could go back in time, I would shut that building down. Or remodel it into something that was more of a therapeutic setting." Angel said that he tried to minimize the use of room confinement as anything more than a cool-down period of less than an hour. "I don't think a prison cell is right for young kids, and I never did," he said.


Asked in May whether Rite of Passage had any internal policies or protocols governing under what circumstances room confinement is used as a response, Cantrell said, "There's not really a policy that spells that out, because every kid is so different. You start trying to put XYZ [triggers room confinement], then what happens is I have a reporter saying, 'Well, the kid didn't do XYZ.'"

Asked whether there were policies or protocols governing how long a youth would be confined in isolation, Cantrell said, "It really depends on their behaviors and when they're calm and ready to rejoin the program. ... Generally, our goal is that the kid is not there more than 24 hours. I mean, that's our goal. Has there been an instance or two where that's been longer? Yes."

When the Arkansas Nonprofit News Network reached out to Cantrell again in July, he declined to speak by telephone, and Rite of Passage's attorneys provided written responses to further questions.

It was in the intervening month that Tanner, the juvenile ombudsman, began to express concern about Building 19 and room confinement at AJATC.

'WE, AS A STATE, ARE FAILING': That's what juvenile ombudsman Scott Tanner wrote to DYS director Betty Guhman (above) on the division's oversight of juvenile isolation.

Golden, the DYS official, soon arranged a meeting with Rite of Passage, on July 10. "I provided them the [draft policy] and informed them that they would have to follow that," he said. "I told them that they could not use that facility in that manner if they were using it improperly. They were in agreement."

On July 25, Tanner wrote in an email, "Rite of Passage has yet to furnish adequate policy supporting these practices ... This practice, as we discussed, exposes the state and your program to risk. ... I will continue to broad stroke this intervention as social isolation and an unacceptable practice until it is demonstrated to me to be supported by adequate policy, practice and monitoring." Golden responded to Tanner, "I am in agreement that they should be drafting an internal policy."

On Aug. 5, Rite of Passage provided Tanner with a June-dated policy on in-school interventions that contains the following language in bold text: "Being removed from school and placed in the cottage/building 19 DOES NOT warrant a student being locked in his or her room all day." However, the newer policy does not appear to otherwise provide clear parameters for the use of room confinement; Tanner later wrote that none of the policies provided address some of the practices he has observed at AJATC.

Attorneys for the company told the Arkansas Nonprofit News Network that as of June 20, Rite of Passage no longer used room confinement in response to misbehavior in class and ISS and described that practice as a holdover from G4S, the for-profit company that previously ran AJATC. Rite of Passage, which took over in August 2016, eventually determined that the practice "lacked the consistency and disciplinary value RoP sought to provide its youth." Company policy, according to Rite of Passage counsel, now dictates that room confinement at AJATC can only be used as a response in four situations: when the youth is a danger to self or others (including fights), destruction of property, committing a class A felony, or possession of harmful contraband. It could also be used if a youth requests room confinement "due to emotional stressors."

Although Rite of Passage does not keep aggregate data, it estimated that over the course of a typical month in the past year, less than 6 percent of the AJATC population — around half a dozen youths — were sent to room confinement in response to an emergency situation. The current policy described by Rite of Passage could allow for the use of room confinement in certain situations that do not involve immediate risk of harm to self or others; Rite of Passage did not provide an estimate of how often it has been used in such situations.

"We know that when young people are in isolation, there's lots of needs that aren't being met," Lutz said. "They're sent to facilities by judges to receive rehabilitation and treatment. Maybe they're there for drug and alcohol treatment, or mental health counseling. Every minute in solitary is a minute they're not getting that treatment.

“Many of these kids have serious educational deficits, and they have a constitutional right to an appropriate education. They're not getting it when they're in solitary confinement. What we often see — in a best-case scenario — assignments are slid under the door, and it's come and collected later."

Rite of Passage did not respond to specific questions about how the daily schedule or programing would operate for youths in room confinement. (For example: Would a student work on schoolwork alone in the cell, or interact with his regular teacher?) "Youth in reassessment adhere to the same daily schedule as the rest of the youth on campus," Rite of Passage counsel said. "Building 19 has a schedule that supports school, meals and programs."

It's time for facilities to develop alternative approaches to locking kids in a cell, Lutz said. "Imagine you heard about a neighbor who locked their 15-year-old with mental health issues in a small linen closet for six hours and then removed them," she said. "No. 1, would you think that would solve anything? And No. 2, that would be child abuse. Why is it any different for these kids? It's harmful, it's damaging, it's abusive, and it doesn't solve anything."

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

Some State Laws Slow Resentencings Despite Miller v. Alabama Decision

While the man behind the landmark decision that ended mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juveniles waits for a new sentence, other inmates given the same term are getting a shot at eventual freedom.

Evan Miller went back before a judge in his hometown of Moulton, Alabama, for a three-day resentencing hearing March 13. Lawrence County Circuit Judge Mark Craig’s decision is still pending.

But the Supreme Court ruling that bears Miller’s name is already bearing fruit for other Alabama inmates serving life without parole for crimes they committed before they were 18. For them, the process can be difficult, slow and vary county by county. And thanks to a 2016 state law, they may have a long wait for a parole hearing even if they succeed.

For example, the July 31 decision declaring juvenile lifer Richard Kinder eligible for parole came nine months after a hearing before a judge in Birmingham, attorney Richard Jaffe said.

“The judge wanted to be thorough and know every inch of it — every document, every record, and there were thousands and thousands of pages,” said Jaffe, who defended Kinder in his 1984 trial and served as co-counsel in his resentencing.

Joy Patterson, a spokeswoman for the Alabama attorney general’s office, said about 70 other state inmates are eligible for new sentencing hearings under the 2012 Miller v. Alabama decision and its 2016 follow-up, Montgomery v. Louisiana, which declared the Miller ruling retroactive.

So far, 20 of them have been resentenced to life with a chance at parole, said Eddie Cook, a spokesman for the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles.

State Rep. Jim Hill, a former judge who pushed to bring Alabama’s capital sentencing law into line with the Miller decision, said he has urged his old colleagues to get on with the task at hand.

“I have certainly had judges call me and ask, ‘Do I need to have rehearings?’ And my answer to them is, ‘Sure. You must. Go ahead and schedule it and get it done,’” said Hill, a Republican who chairs the state House Judiciary Committee.

Alabama’s new capital sentencing law, passed in 2016, also requires that teens convicted of capital murder serve 30 years before becoming eligible for release. Since Kinder has been imprisoned more than 30 years, he now has the right to a parole hearing, Jaffe said.

But other juvenile lifers will face more years behind bars even if they succeed in getting their chance at parole. That would include Miller himself, who was convicted in 2006.

That 30-year requirement isn’t the most stringent, according to The Sentencing Project, a Washington-based research and advocacy organization. At least two states — Texas and Nebraska — require a 40-year minimum. But it’s tougher than others: West Virginia allows inmates to get a hearing after 15 years; Nevada, 20; and South Dakota leaves the issue entirely up to a judge.

And the Miller decision barred only the automatic imposition of a life-without-parole sentence for a teen killer. Judges can still hand down that term after weighing the evidence. But the justices required them to consider a teen’s "diminished culpability and heightened capacity for change," and the follow-up Montgomery decision limits the punishment to teens whose crimes show “permanent incorrigibility.”

“It’s going to apply to the rarest of the rare cases,” Jaffe said.

Kinder has served nearly 33 years of a life-without-parole sentence for a killing committed when he was 17.

Kinder, then 17, was convicted of capital murder in the 1983 killing of 16-year-old Kathleen Bedsole during a robbery and kidnapping. As an accomplice, Kinder was spared the death penalty, but got life without parole. The 21-year-old gunman, David Duren, went to the electric chair in 2000, having dropped his appeals after a religious conversion.

Jaffe called Kinder’s resentencing “excruciating” and “heart-wrenching.” It featured testimony from Bedsole’s boyfriend, who survived his wounds that night. But guards and teachers at the prison where Kinder has been locked up testified that he has been a model prisoner. His disciplinary record includes only one infraction, and he earned a high school equivalency diploma, an associate’s degree from a community college and a trade school diploma in furniture refinishing.

In addition, Duren’s attorney signed an affidavit recounting that his client had said he made the decision to shoot Bledsoe and her boyfriend without telling Kinder, and that Kinder had told him there “was no need to shoot.” Jaffe said Circuit Judge Teresa Pulliam found Kinder “was not only rehabilitatable, but had been rehabilitated.”

Pulliam has scheduled several other hearings for inmates convicted in Jefferson County, the state’s largest, said Michael Hanle, president of the Alabama Criminal Defense Lawyers Association. But for convicts in other counties, there’s little movement, he said.

“We’re not quick to the table,” said Hanle, who is also Jaffe’s law partner. Rural counties especially “are not moving as quickly as in some other jurisdictions, and they’re having a little more difficult time.”

Many judges aren’t eager to reduce sentences, and defense lawyers are often court-appointed and lack the resources to assemble their case. But the biggest obstacle is time, he said.

“Some of these guys have been in prison 20, 25, 30, 35 years, and a lot has happened during that time,” Hanle said. Finding witnesses becomes harder, and it’s more difficult to present testimony that would point toward a lighter term.

“And of course, a defendant has a lifetime literally in the Department of Corrections, which comes with its ups and downs,” he said. “Some of them have gone on to do great things as far as their education, training and rehabilitation. Others have had problems, and all those things are going to be brought back up during the resentencing.”

Hill said the judges he knows “all want to follow the law, whether they like it or don’t like it.”

“I think it’s a necessity that we do it,” he added. “It’s one of those things that when you see what the situation is, you need to address it. It took us a couple of years to address it, but we did, and I’m very glad that we did.”

Miller is represented by the Montgomery-based Equal Justice Initiative, which took his case to the U.S. Supreme Court. Bryan Stevenson, EJI’s executive director, did not respond to a request for comment.

Nationwide, about 2,500 inmates are eligible for new hearings under the Miller and Montgomery decisions. It’s not clear how many of them have had those hearings, but states well beyond Alabama have been slow to schedule them, said Josh Rovner, a juvenile justice advocacy associate at The Sentencing Project.  

“While there are certainly states that have sharp declines — sometimes because state supreme courts required it — in many cases, the states barely budged in the number of people serving life without parole for things they did as a juvenile,” Rovner said.

For example, Iowa has moved quickly to resentence inmates eligible for new hearings under Miller, and it has eliminated mandatory minimum sentences for crimes committed by juveniles altogether, Rovner said. But in Arkansas, a judge recently struck down the state’s new sentencing law because it failed to provide for individualized hearings. And the three states with the most juvenile life-without-parole sentences — Michigan, Louisiana and Pennsylvania — “really dragged their feet on this,” he said.

“The facts are rarely in question,” Rovner said. “The question is what is the juvenile’s maturity, involvement in the offense, what was his family life like — these are questions that are able to be answered.” Caseloads and procedures might move at different paces in some places, but he said waiting five years since the Miller decision “is preposterous.”  

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The Unlikely Reason Arkansas’ Juvenile Justice System Is Behind the Times


Over the past two years, Arkansas’ juvenile justice system has burst into the news repeatedly — and for all the wrong reasons. In August 2014, the Disability Rights Center documented alarming conditions in the state’s largest juvenile correctional facility. In 2015, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette documented the state’s continuing penchant for jailing children brought to court for status offenses — misbehaviors like skipping school or running away from home that are not illegal for adults — contradicting an overwhelming consensus in the field.

This year, Republican Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas has made news by single-handedly derailing reauthorization of the federal Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act in protest against legislative language that would tighten the federal government’s prohibition on confining status offenders.

Meanwhile, even as juvenile incarceration has been plummeting nationwide, Arkansas has increased the number of youth committed to state custody for two straight years despite a continuing drop in their arrests.

Why is Arkansas apparently moving backwards when many of its peers, including several deep red Southern states, have turned a corner by embracing more humane and evidence-based approaches to juvenile justice?

The problem stems largely from the outsized influence of Arkansas’ unique network of service provider agencies, experts and advocates told me.

These agencies are not the kinds of scandal-plagued for-profit prison corporations often (and rightfully) pilloried in the press. Rather, they are nonprofit, community-based and widely respected, with a long history of caring for troubled children.

Most were created in the 1970s after passage of the Runaway Youth Act made federal funds available for programs to assist wayward youth. Initially, the organizations struggled. But that began changing in the late 1970s and early ‘80s after they undertook training on how they could band together and expand their influence.

In later years, the providers put politically connected leaders on their boards and branched out to serve youth in the delinquency system. After forming the Arkansas Youth Service Providers Association, they negotiated standard contracts with the Division of Youth Services (DYS) to pay them for community-based services, and some opened residential facilities as well. Rather than fight each other for funding, the 13 providers agreed to carve the state into pieces, and each became the sole recipient of DYS contracts in its given territory.

Though no one I spoke with accused the providers of corruption, or even bad will, several observers described them as obstacles to reform. “The providers have become very entrenched,” explained Paul Kelly, who once ran a provider agency and served as the first director of the providers association.

“They very seldom have anyone competing with them,” said Kelly, who now works at Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families. The providers have fought “any really meaningful accountability for the impact of their services,” he added.

Mickey Yeager, a data analyst at DYS from 2009 to 2014, was more blunt: “The providers in Arkansas are very powerful. They basically do what they want.”

Ron Angel, who served as DYS director from 2007 to 2013, recalls his first meeting with the providers. “They told me: They have been here for 30 years … They knew what was needed, and there was nothing that could be brought in that would work any better than what they were doing at the time.”


The message was jarring, because DYS was then facing a lawsuit over abusive conditions in its main juvenile facility, and because just 15 percent of the youth committed to state custody in 2007 had committed a serious violent felony, while 42 percent had committed only misdemeanors.

At DYS, Angel overhauled the state’s largest facility, and sought to reduce the number of low-risk youth in residential custody while expanding and improving community programs. He set a goal for each judicial district in the state to reduce commitments by at least 10 percent per year, and he created an incentive fund to support new programming in the districts where commitments declined 20 percent.

The changes made a difference. From 2007 to 2012, the number of youth committed to state custody fell. So did the average population in state youth facilities and the share of committed youth who had been adjudicated for misdemeanors. But the improvements were modest.

In early 2013, Angel and his allies crafted a legislative proposal to create local Community Youth Services Boards and engage entire communities, not just service providers, in determining the right mix of programs for court-involved youth.

The bill was throttled, however, when providers worked their contacts in the Legislature and mounted a lobbying campaign against it.

John Furness, executive director of Comprehensive Juvenile Services in Fort Smith, Arkansas, is unapologetic about killing Angel’s proposal. “I saw that as a complete dismantling of the very established provider network that has been in place for many years and does good work,” Furness told me. “I thought it was a bad bill, and we spoke out against it.”

Within weeks, Angel tendered his resignation and retired.

The provider association’s fingerprints can also be seen in the dearth of meaningful data analysis in Arkansas’ juvenile system and the frequent leadership turnover at DYS.

Before 2007, DYS made little effort to analyze its population, or determine what worked and didn’t work. “The data was there. You just had to pull it,” recalled Yeager, the data specialist. “But no one was digging through it.”

When Angel tried to make service providers report details on the services they offered and their results, “you would have thought we had asked for their firstborn child,” Angel recalled. “How can you base your treatment if you don’t have standards where you can measure what’s being successful and what’s not?”

The providers “fought us every step of the way,” Yeager added. “Ron was called to the capital several times …  because he was trying to track the performance of the providers.”

That dynamic wasn’t new, Kelly said: “I have sat back and watched [the providers] make life miserable for one DYS director after another, just because they propose a different way of doing things or make life in any way uncomfortable.”

Angel’s greatest accomplishment at DYS may have been simply lasting for six years. He arrived as the agency’s ninth new director in 12 years. Since his retirement, DYS has cycled through two more directors. In April, the latest one abruptly resigned and the agency is now led by an interim appointee.

Despite these impediments, momentum for reform is once again building in Arkansas. Promising models for enhanced risk and need assessments, detention reform and improved juvenile probation practice are being tested around the state. The state’s court system is improving juvenile data collection and has established an active juvenile justice reform subcommittee.

Plus, a youth justice reform board appointed by Gov. Asa Hutchison appears ready to support a multimillion-dollar incentive fund to reduce the number of kids sentenced to state custody, reviving Angel’s strategy. Meanwhile, many of the state’s juvenile judges are abandoning old-school, law-and-order orthodoxy and embracing more therapeutic and targeted approaches.

Across Arkansas, judges and other local leaders are growing more and more familiar with the dramatic advances the juvenile justice field has made in recent years, more and more eager to embrace what works — as their peers have done in other states.

Amid this groundswell, providers will face increasing pressure to adapt new practices, collect better data and measure performance. If they continue to resist, the providers will likely squander their credibility and lose their cherished place at the heart of the Arkansas system.

The pull of progress is simply too strong.

Dick Mendel is an independent writer and editor on juvenile justice and other youth, poverty and community development issues. He has written nationally disseminated reports for the Annie E. Casey Foundation and others and has also written articles for The Atlantic, Washington Monthly, Legal Times, Raleigh News and Observer and Baltimore Sun.

Arkansas Juvenile Justice Reform: A Blueprint for National Success?

In 1991, The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette published an article on the state’s juvenile justice system bearing the ominous headline “Stacked in centers, youths in trouble fall through the cracks.” The story also featured comments from a consultant, who said  –  two years prior  –  “too many youths who could better be served in community-based treatment were being inappropriately and unnecessarily held in state confinement.”

Over the next seven years, matters only worsened for the state’s juvenile justice system. In 1998, The Democrat-Gazette published a five-part series entitled “Juvenile Justice: The War Within” detailing the failings of the state’s juvenile incarceration sites. Three years after the series was published, two juveniles at the Alexander Youth Services Center – the state’s largest juvenile incarceration facility – committed suicide within a span of six months. A year later, the Civil Rights Division of the United States Department of Justice conducted an investigation of the facility, determining that the conditions at Alexander were so substandard that the constitutional rights of detained youth were being violated.

By 2007, state officials decided it was time to completely overhaul Arkansas’ juvenile justice system, culminating with the enactment of state Senate Resolution 31, which authorized a comprehensive study with the intent of reducing “reliance on large juvenile correctional facilities” within the state.

Five years later, however, Arkansas has seen a drastic reduction in juvenile commitment rates – as well as average time of incarceration for youths – after the implementation of several reform policies, which emphasize community based treatment alternatives to residential lockup.  According to several analysts and activists, Arkansas’ system overhaul could be the wave of the future in dealing with juvenile justice matters, especially considering the limited budgetary resources for many states.

Earlier this year, a report entitled Arkansas Youth Justice: The Architecture of Reform was released, analyzing the state’s successes in implementing sweeping juvenile justice reform measures. The report -- co–authored by Pat Arthur, a former senior attorney at the National Center for Youth Law, and Christopher Hartney, a senior researcher at the National Council on Crime and Delinquency – notes that since a series of reform plans were introduced in 2008, a number of Arkansas’ longstanding juvenile justice ailments have considerably lessened.

According to the new report, commitments to state custody in Arkansas have decreased almost 20 percent over the last four years, with the average length of stay for juveniles in residential treatment programs declining from 216 days in 2008 to an average of just 175 in 2011 – a reduction of almost 19 percent. Additionally, the report finds that the number of beds at the Arkansas Juvenile Assessment and Treatment Center – which was formerly called the Alexander Youth Services Center – has decreased by 30 percent, currently housing 100 beds as opposed to 143 four years ago.

Perhaps most noteworthy, however, is the drastic decrease in the state’s rate of “dual jurisdiction” commitments to detainment facilities. In 2009, the report finds that approximately 60 juveniles who were also wards of the state were incarcerated in detention centers – a rate that dropped by almost 75 percent in 2011, with only 16 documented “dual jurisdiction” detainees within the state. The report also says that recommitments have dropped considerably since 2006, with the rate of recidivism plummeting by 27.8 percent by 2009. An additional 15 percent drop was noted in the report, covering a time span of 2009 to 2011.

Isami Arifuku, a senior researcher at the National Council on Crime & Delinquency, helped conceptualize the project, as well as examine the report’s preliminary data.

“I think one of the most impressive things is the fact that Arkansas decided that this was something they wanted to address and they developed a plan for doing it,” she said. “I think one of the biggest things that happened were things like the determination -- the setting of the goals -- to decrease reliance on commitments in the sentencing of young juveniles.”

In 2008, Arkansas’ Director of the Division of Youth Services Ron Angel led the drafting of a new reform policy program that aimed to increase the use of community-based support programs for juveniles, while simultaneously decreasing the number of youth in state lockup. The Arkansas Division of Youth Services Comprehensive Reform Plan 2009–2014 was completed and approved in the summer of 2009, with financial backing from organizations such as the JEHT Foundation, the Atlantic Philanthropies and the Public Welfare Foundation.

“There had been problems at Alexander with the contractor that was running that operation,” Angel said. “There had been allegations of neglect, allegations of kids being given too much medication and there was a general concern about the quality and conditions of confinement.”

Angel said that upon becoming director of the state’s Department of Youth Services, he began consultations with members of various juvenile justice reform groups, including the National Center for Youth Law. At the time, he said that the Division of Youth Services had “no policies” in place.

“I basically opened the door for advocate groups, and let them take a look and give me advice on how we might make changes that would be better for the youth that we had in our facilities,” he said.

Angel said that one of the first major challenges he faced as the state’s DYS director was convincing people that the number of incarcerations at the Arkansas Juvenile Assessment and Treatment Center were actually decreasing. Furthermore, a temporary backlog resulted in an increase in juvenile detention center placements as reform measures began.

“I think the system wasn’t used to being efficient in finding placement, in finding treatment and getting the kids moved into more appropriate treatment,” Angel said. “As I told the DHS director, if we don’t do it, and we don’t do it wisely, then we can run into problems.”

The number of beds at the Arkansas Juvenile Assessment and Treatment Center soon dropped from 133 to 120, a vital first step according to Angel. “I felt like it was overcrowded, which fosters an unsafe atmosphere,” he said. “We are currently at 100, and I am in the process of reducing that facility another 30 beds and bringing it down to 70.”

A May 2008 report, entitled Juvenile Justice Reform in Arkansas: Building a Better Future for Youth, Their Families, and the Community served as the framework for many of the state’s infrastructural changes.

In addition to noting several problematic areas of the state’s juvenile justice system – among them, system fragmentation, inadequate risk and needs assessments and a lack of community-based resources – the report also outlined a communication strategy that would prove pivotal to the program’s success.

“I think there’s been a tremendous change in the state of Arkansas,” Angel said. “I went around and started visiting with the juvenile judges of the state to determine what they perceived to be their needs to provide services to youth rather than commitment.”

Angel said he feels as if there’s been a “general understanding and acceptance” of the role neurological development plays in the behavior of youth, which has influenced how many judges and citizens think about juvenile justice issues in the state.

“The best way to treat youth, any of the youth, is to keep them close to home,” he said. I think all the studies have proven this. I think that many of our youth can become institutionalized if we depend on residential placement for treatment.”

The state of Arkansas has seen a reduction in commitments for the last four years, Angel said, resulting in additional funding for community treatment services from Gov. Mike Bebee.

“We were able to take money out of our residential budget and put it into community-based budgets,” he noted. “I think in the next four years, as long as we show that we can reduce our dependence on residential, we can continually reduce the number of kids in our programs and we can focus on those cases that need in-depth treatment.”

Arifuku praised the state for its reform programs, which she said reduced “the actual time that youth served from the time they are placed in commitment to actual release” while promoting administrative polices that do not lead to an increased public safety risk.

“A lot of the data is similar to what’s happening across the country, which is the number of commitments are going down,” she commented. “Overall it’s down in many jurisdictions. The ups and downs in terms of arrests and the number of commitments which result are [on] much more of a steady downward trend.”

According to Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention statistics, Arkansas placed 729 juveniles in residential placement in 2010 – a decrease of more than 10 percent from state data from five years prior. That same year, 29 states placed higher numbers of juveniles in state facilities and detention centers.

Angel said that the results of the state’s reform policies were apparent.

“We’re down 19.6 percent in kids committed to the Division of Youth Services,” he concluded.

“If you put money into community services and reduce dependency on residential service, it’s going to save the taxpayers’ dollars, it’s going to be better for the kids and I think it’s just a better way of doing business.”

Lawsuit Claims Arkansas School Won’t Allow Black Valedictorian

A graduating Arkansas high school senior claims her school denied her valedictorian status because she is black, despite boasting the highest GPA in her class. According to the court document filed by her attorney, 18-year-old Kymberly Wimberly would have been the first black valedictorian of McGehee Secondary School since 1989. Forty-six percent of students in the school are black, according to the Huffington Post.

Wimberly’s mother, Molly Bratton, said she heard school personnel say giving Wimberly valedictorian status would cause “a big mess.” Subsequently, McGehee’s principal Darrell Thompson told Bratton that he was naming a white “co-valedictorian.” The school board would not hear Bratton’s appeals.

In an interview with the McGehee Dermott Times-News, District Superintendent Thomas Gathen said, "It's not a race issue; it's an academic issue." He went on to explain that Wimberly and the co-valedictorian had identical grades, Wimberly had fewer credits, giving her the higher GPA. Gathen said school district policy was designed to keep students who take a greater number of credits from being penalized.

"We followed to the letter our district policy in designating our valedictorians," Gathen said.

The federal discrimination complaint seeks punitive damages for violation of equal protection rights secured by the 14th amendment of the U.S. constitution.