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AR Makes Slow, Steady Progress in Juvenile Justice

PHOTO: Arkansas is locking up fewer young offenders, but more can be done to provide effective alternatives for those who are nonviolent. CREDIT: Thomas Hugh Martin, Esq.
PHOTO: Arkansas is locking up fewer young offenders, but more can be done to provide effective alternatives for those who are nonviolent. CREDIT: Thomas Hugh Martin, Esq.
February 28, 2013

BENTONVILLE, Ark. - Arkansas may have locked up more young offenders 10 or 15 years ago, but its new approach to juvenile justice appears to be paying off. A new report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation shows youth incarceration numbers were up 20 percent in the state through 2010 - but in 2008, Arkansas put sweeping new reforms into effect.

Ron Angel, director of the DHS Division of Youth Services, said the focus now is on services and treatment for most young people, and longer-term confinement only for those who pose a public safety risk.

"This report is totally in line with the concept that we're moving forward with here in the state," Angel said. "Effective intervention - not in a correctional setting, but in the community - is the key to success of our kids."

Angel pointed to one critical need in rural areas: more substance-abuse counselors. The Casey Foundation report noted another challenge - a racial gap. Nationally, African-American kids are five times more likely to be incarcerated as their white peers; for Latino and Native American children, jail is two to three times more likely.

Dennis Cottrell, the juvenile detention director in Benton County, said the Casey Foundation will soon be working with juvenile detention centers (JDCs) in Benton, Garland and Washington counties in a pilot program to help young, nonviolent offenders.

"They're going to be actively looking for ways to place them in alternative community settings, as opposed to JDCs," he said. "What we hope that we'll find over a period of time is that then, there's a better way to try and help the families more and address their needs."

District 3 Circuit Judge Thomas Smith said the juvenile courts are requiring more thorough risk assessments and mental health testing. He agreed that young people are better served by community-based programs, but was concerned about the effects of state budget cuts.

"I'm very worried long-term about what the impact of the budgets are going to be, for what we can do for kids," Smith said. "It's real life that it affects. I hope we'll be able to use a lot of different resources to not lose providers and not lose caregivers."

Since the 2008 reforms were enacted, the state has made some progress on juvenile commitments and shorter stays in detention. Advocates for kids say more can be done.

The report, "Reducing Youth Incarceration in the United States," is available at www.aecf.org.

Chris Thomas, Public News Service - AR