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

Some Secure Youth Facilities Are Not Bad and Are Still Needed, Latest Research Shows

As someone who has worked, lived and breathed our mission statement: “Treat all youths in custody as one of our own,” I was ecstatic when the research on the teenage brain and adolescent development made its way into juvenile justice. The 2013 publication of the National Academy of Science’s “Reforming Juvenile Justice, A Developmental Approach” in particular launched new reforms and accelerated existing ones in the facilities and community programs we work with at Performance-based Standards Learning Institute (PbS). I thank the John D. MacArthur Foundation and Laurie Garduque in particular for supporting the research over much of the last two decades that created the so-called Fourth Wave of Reform.

Conversations among corrections and detention leaders and professionals, locally and nationally, changed from how to reduce punishment to how to catch youths doing things right — because that’s what the research says works best. Now standing on solid ground with the adolescent development research, deep-end reformers expanded daily programming to include more time with families, sought out and secured opportunities for youths to work and make connections in the community and trained staff to build healthy, nurturing relationships with youths. Youth councils became more the rule than the exception. At PbS, we created the Kids Got Talent Contest and host the winner each year to travel and perform live as the feature act of our national awards night. I worried the first year we might not get any or only a few submissions but the contest was embraced. Youths and staff were excited to share their talents and the competition has grown each year.

It seems the wave is on a roll.

But, as is so well written and thoughtfully presented in the recent publication “Assuring the Future of Developmental Reform in Juvenile Justice” (I was a member of the panel that identified the threats to the reforms; that became the report), there are challenges to sustaining the reforms and even threats to the long-range objectives because of the reform movement itself. There are many vulnerabilities that put the good work at risk, especially at the deep end of juvenile justice.

To be very clear: My passion is the youths who are in custody. They are the reason I get up and go to work. I don’t want them to be locked up or caught in the web of the juvenile justice system at all. I know the research on the effectiveness of community-based programs and promote diversion. I want juvenile justice reform to do all that’s possible to reduce the use of secure facilities and avoid placing any youths in secure programs when they don’t need them. But if they are, we are morally obligated to provide them with the best services and opportunities we can, to bring the research into practice and keep them on the path to maturing to be healthy, productive and fulfilled adults.

What I fear threatens the powerful reforms sweeping state, county and community residential facilities is using the developmental approach as evidence that all secure facilities must be closed because all facilities are “bad.”

Here’s why: First, as unpopular as it is to say, secure placement is the right place for a very few youths who are dangerous and have developmental needs for interventions that can only be managed in secure settings: serious offenders, repeat offenders and youths who need more structured treatment to prepare them for reentry than a community program can provide. I interviewed a youth in a secure facility who had been playing Russian roulette with his best friend. He pointed the gun to his temple, nothing happened. He pointed at his friend’s temple, it fired, his friend died. He needed intensive treatment and 24-hour supervision. It was the best place for him. He felt safe and cared for and was afraid to return to the community.

Our justice system relies on incarceration. Without secure facilities for young offenders, judges are most likely to send a youth charged with murder or rape to an adult prison rather than to the community. Informally and formally, the system will be restructured to transfer those youths to adult prisons, the opposite result intended by the developmentally based reform efforts to keep youths out of adult prisons. Juvenile justice essentially becomes eliminated as an option, the opposite intention of reform efforts to ensure youths are recognized by our justice system as developmentally different from adults.

Second, the drive to close all juvenile secure facilities infers that all facilities are bad when there is evidence that they are not. Labeling facilities as bad has the same effect as it does when we label youths as bad: They lose motivation to change. It is a quick way to discourage the staff working with the youths every day. Another youth I interviewed in a facility summed it up: “When people tell me I’m bad, it don’t make it easy to be good.”

There are some very good secure treatment facilities across the country.

They don’t get a lot of positive attention in the reform movement but they are having the impact the Fourth Wave intends. Agency directors, facility administrators and line staff who treat youths like they are their own children, create nurturing relationships, partner with parents, create hope for youths and promote their self-confidence and self-awareness. Their data shows youths and staff are safe, and developmentally appropriate programming prepares the youths for reentry.

PbS is the only entity that surveys youths, staff and families twice a year to hear what they have to say about safety, services, relationships, quality of life and culture. I share some of the responses from April 2017 with the full understanding that the information indicates the work ahead as well as the work to date:

  • When asked “What is the best thing this facility did to get you ready to move to your next placement or to go home?” the top three responses were: Learn to make better choices (67 percent), Improve my attitude (61 percent) and Be accountable for my actions (59 percent);
    • Most said their family felt welcome at the facility (70 percent) and that their family and staff generally got along with each other (72 percent);
  • When asked about fairness, 83 percent said staff are fair applying rules about phone calls, 72 percent said staff are fair about discipline issues and 60 percent said the rules are fair.
    • Additionally, 75 percent said staff seemed to genuinely care about them and 68 percent said overall they trust staff.

I was extremely fortunate to be a member of the Forecasting Project working to identify the challenges the reform would face and strategies to ensure the changes were sustained. It was the most remarkable process and thorough examination by the most dedicated and knowledgeable group of individuals I’ve ever experienced. They did not recommend the closing of youth secure facilities.

To move forward, the group recommends that the organizations and individuals promoting reform collaborate and be aware of causing unintended negative consequences. There are more than 50,000 youths in custody, and they need the wave of the adolescent development reform to include them, not wash over them.

Kim Godfrey serves as executive director of the Performance-based Standards Learning Institute (PbS), a national nonprofit dedicated to treating all youths in custody as one of our own. Kim has worked since 1995 developing and directing PbS, a data-driven improvement model  that holds juvenile justice agencies to the highest standards of quality of life, programs and services.

To Keep Kids Out of the System, We Need Community Involvement

Most of the teenagers walking into my courtroom were 1st or 2nd time visitors.  They didn’t want to return, and we worked with them and their parents to make that first visit their last one.

However, some kids need more support and intervention to change their life trajectories from negative to positive.

After seeing the same teens in court year after year, judges wonder what it will take to change the behaviors that keep bringing them back into court. Short of sending a youth off to a state prison, the options usually available to juvenile court judges include stern lectures and warnings, mandated community service, assessment and rehabilitative services, and electronic monitoring.

Sometimes judges reach a point where everything has been tried at least once, and yet the youth is again back in court with a new offense.  When that happens, will the judge leave the youth with his or her family and try for rehabilitation again? Or will the judge think “been there, done that” and send the youth to incarceration far from home?

Sending any young person to prison can’t be equated with sending your troubles away forever. They always return. And when they do, they go right back into the same home environment, same community, and same group of friends or gang.

A few months or even years in a juvenile prison rarely improve behaviors. Unless something has changed at home, chances are that juvenile will be back in court or will age into the adult courts.

Incarceration is an option whenever the teen poses a threat to public safety or his own safety. Otherwise, rehabilitative services are worth repeated attempts. They are far less expensive than prison and are more effective.

While every situation is different, families always are key to keeping sons and daughters out of trouble.

The youth brought repeatedly to juvenile court often have parents who had been in either the juvenile or adult system – or both. Judges, especially in rural areas like my own, come across generations of families in courtrooms. One or more family members appear in child welfare cases, domestic violence situations, small claims court and every nook and cranny of the courthouse.

Because these families are involved in both the child welfare system and the justice system, we should involve both systems in solutions. Bringing community-based services to an entire family, can help parents communicate with their children to resolve arguments and use appropriate discipline to address behavior problems. When social services involve the youth’s entire family, other children in the home benefit as well, and we sometimes can prevent siblings from following the same path into the juvenile justice system.

Early investment in prevention and assistance, such as mental health counseling and treatment for drug addictions, can pay dividends for many years into the future. Breaking a family’s cycle of juvenile and adult crime is an obvious benefit to public safety, but it also means those youth become productive citizens less likely to need other assistance or return again and again to expensive adult prisons.

In Illinois, we’re beginning to apply those same lessons to the most challenging kids and families, through Redeploy Illinois, which keeps kids out of state prisons, and through innovative aftercare programming for youth who do pass through those youth prisons.

In 2011, the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice (IDJJ) piloted an aftercare program for youth entering prison from Cook County, our state’s largest county. By assigning specially trained aftercare specialists to work directly with youth and their families from the day they first enter prison until they leave and the months beyond, we can better prepare those youth to follow the law and continue in school.

This promising approach works with kids and families to plan for a safe and successful return home and to build support and strengths to keep kids in the community and out of costly and ineffective prisons. It's showing positive impact and is rightly being expanded across the state.

To complement IDJJ’s aftercare specialists, the Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission (IJJC) funded a youth aftercare series pilot project partnering with well established non-profit family service agencies to give added services to youth returning to some of the state’s toughest neighborhoods in Chicago and the East St. Louis region –communities sending the largest number of youth to the state’s juvenile prisons.

Using $1.5 million in federal funds, the Commission’s aftercare projects test the impact of intense, family-focused community services and support in keeping kids at home and out of prison.

Together, these projects are developing replicable models for working with young people at the “deep end” of the justice system.

These responses are even more successful when others in the community work with the juvenile justice system to reach teens in trouble. When service providers, including those outside the justice system, like faith-based organizations and schools, are trying to help the same family and can collaborate, they can create an integrated and powerful response. Communities must come together to save our children.

Whether in prison or not, we can’t give up on any young people. With the right supervision, support and services, all are capable of change and growth.

Following a New Roadmap to Juvenile Justice

John Last 1These days are exciting ones for youth justice in the United States. Several factors have come together to influence the evolution of the field, including the economic downturn, a recognition that traditional models have failed, and a wide variety of new alternatives.

David Muhammad, the former chief probation officer of Alameda County California, and the former deputy commissioner of probation in New York City, writes in an August 28, post for New America Media, A Roadmap to the Future of Juvenile Justice, about programs around the country that are working.

He focuses on several interrelated approaches. The first, Positive Youth Development, flips the usual approach of criminal justice, which views kids involved with the system as problems to be fixed, on its head. Instead, systems focus on youths’ strengths and work to develop them, while also addressing deficits.

At its heart are five promises; caring adults, safe places, a healthy start and healthy development, an effective education and opportunities to help others through service. These, along with various frameworks that join policy and practices, holistically approach juvenile delinquency for what it is, a social justice issue.

Muhammad next points out the development of trauma informed intervention, and the resulting decrease in detention. Most kids who end up in trouble have histories of trauma. Juvenile justice approaches have traditionally ignored this fact, and have even exacerbated the problem through the further trauma of incarceration.

“Numerous studies have shown that incarcerating young people has profound negative effects upon them,” he writes. “Several reports have also revealed that probation supervision makes lower-risk youth worse. Juvenile justice systems must take advantage of research that has developed risk assessment tools that are able to effectively separate high and low-risk youth.”

This focus on high-risk youth acknowledges two facts. First, the ability of probation officers to monitor youth is limited, and it makes sense to direct their efforts to where they can be most effective. Second, lower-risk youth are actually damaged by contact with probation and detention, so the use of these strategies is actually counter productive.

If youth are detained, it is imperative that they be housed in humane conditions. To do otherwise is to exacerbate the very problem we are seeking to resolve. If detention is necessary for safety, then youth prisons need to be places where kids can get the services they need for rehabilitation and treatment.

The final piece that draws all of the others together is community partnership. It is time for people to become involved, and to stop imagining that these kids are a problem who can be thrown away and forgotten. Government has been at fault in leaving the people out of the loop, but the people have been lazy and disinclined to become involved. Community-based programs will work to keep a lot of kids out of detention, and to welcome back those who are sent away.

Early Numbers Show 10 Percent Decrease in Florida Juvenile Delinquency

Early figures show a 10 percent decline in Florida juvenile delinquency reports for FY 2010-2011, ending June 30th.

Delinquency referrals peaked in 1994-1995, according to the Associated Press, with 123 for every 1,000 kids age 10 to 17. Since then the rate has dropped every year to it’s current low of 59 for every 1,000 juveniles in the state.

Florida’s Department of Juvenile Justice plans to further reduce the number of referrals in the coming years with an increased emphasis on civil citations in lieu of criminal charges and community-based treatment programs.

While the exact number of juvenile offenders has yet to be determined, the department expects it to be below 110,000 for the year.

How Money Crunch Can Spur Reform

A new report makes the case for juvenile justice reform despite financial constraints.  The study, called The Real Costs and Benefits of Change, comes from The National Juvenile Justice Network, and outlines pro-active measures that advocates can take to cut spending without cutting effective programs. Their core mission is to put fewer young people in jail or detention, without sacrificing safety.  It recommends using the budget crisis facing cities and states to promote shutting down facilities by showing how much money can be saved; and using that money to fund less expensive community-based alternative programs.

The authors lay out specific tactics and cite numerous examples in Wisconsin, Ohio, Illinois, California, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, New Mexico.