State’s jailed youth population declines

BEHIND THE CURVE: Arkansas has not achieved the clear downward trend in youth confinement that most other states have seen in the past two decades.
BEHIND THE CURVE: Arkansas has not achieved the clear downward trend in youth confinement that most other states have seen in the past two decades.


This story is the second part of a series. Read the first part here.

Two decades ago, Arkansas had the lowest delinquent youth confinement rate in the region and one of the lowest in the nation, according to the U.S. Department of Justice's Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

Now, the most recent OJJDP data shows the rate at which Arkansas locks up its youth is higher than all but one of its neighbors, Louisiana.

In 2015, Arkansas confined 175 youths for every 100,000 in the general population. The national rate that year was 152 — a number illustrating the sea change that has occurred in juvenile justice in the U.S. after confinement of youths peaked in the mid-1990s. The country as a whole has seen a 57 percent decrease in youth confinement since 1997, when the national rate was 356.

Since the '90s, the use of confinement has dropped both in states that started out with very high rates, such as Louisiana, and those that started out as low as Arkansas, such as Oklahoma. Many states have closed down youth lockup facilities and shifted resources toward community-based alternatives, such as family therapy and substance abuse treatment.

Arkansas, however, has bucked the trend. The state Division of Youth Services continues to operate eight secure facilities that today hold over 343 youths. Another 49 youth committed to the DYS are held temporarily in local juvenile detention centers. In addition to accommodating the DYS' overflow population, the local JDCs also hold hundreds more kids who are awaiting adjudication, though there is little reliable data about exactly how many. Forty-five percent of DYS commitments in the 2017 fiscal year were for non-felony offenses, according to the agency's 2017 annual report.

Pat Arthur, an attorney formerly with the National Center for Youth Law, partnered closely with Arkansas DYS from 2007 to 2013 in an attempt to reduce the state's reliance on secure facilities. The experience left her frustrated with the system's inertia.

"The numbers [in Arkansas] went the wrong direction from what everybody else in the country was doing and what's been proven to have been successful for helping youth get back on track," Arthur said recently. "For me, the critical formula, and it's not complicated, is to remove kids to out-of-home placements only if they present a substantial risk to public safety. The low-to-moderate-risk kids shouldn't be removed from their homes or incarcerated. ... You don't want to put kids in harmful situations — which, undoubtedly, incarceration is — unless they really are public safety risks."

The vast majority of youths committed to the DYS are not high-risk, Arthur said.

"Study after study and experiences in other states show that [confinement is] a model that is not working to provide the supports and rehabilitation that youth need who have gotten in trouble with the law — to keep them out of cycling through both the juvenile system and, later, the [adult] criminal justice system," she said.

Lockups are also expensive. Arkansans pay over $87,000 per year to house a single youth at the state's largest secure facility, the Arkansas Juvenile Assessment and Treatment Center in Saline County, according to the 2017 DYS annual report. The figure does not include medical care or education. By way of comparison, the annual cost of attendance at the University of Arkansas for a full-time, in-state student (including all tuition, fees, room, board and other expenses) was $25,000 for the 2017-18 school year.

The other seven DYS facilities cost between $50,000 and $55,000 annually per youth, while county JDCs cost an average of around $27,000.

Community-based alternatives to confinement tend to be much less costly. Studies of community programs in Ohio and Florida found they usually cost below than $10,000 per youth each year, while their participants boasted lower recidivism rates on average than those seen among similarly situated youths committed to secure facilities. Among juvenile justice stakeholders, there is a near-consensus regarding the need to shift away from institutions and toward community programs.

Yet reinvestment has proved elusive in Arkansas. Some juvenile judges have sharply reduced the use of confinement by fostering local alternatives to the DYS, from mentorship programs to targeted therapy. Other judges continue to lock up kids at high rates — in part, a function of the vast disparity in resources across different counties.

Reform efforts have been most successful in places like booming Benton County, the state's second-largest county, which committed only five youths to state custody in 2017. In the 13th Judicial District, comprised of six counties in South Arkansas, there were 60 commitments during the same period — even though the area's population is about half that of Benton County's.

Rural counties face a resource gap. "There are going to be areas more responsive than others regarding community capacity," Scott Tanner, the state's juvenile ombudsman, said. Some counties simply have few options for delinquent youths besides a DYS facility or the local juvenile detention center. "Judges in Hempstead and Nevada counties are saying, 'We got nothing. We got nothing in our communities.' ... The state lacks the resources, so where does the community turn to?"

Transient reforms

Meanwhile, the DYS continues to spend heavily on confinement. It budgeted $27.6 million for residential services in the 2017 fiscal year.

DYS Director Betty Guhman said it's a long-term goal of the agency to "rebalance our funding more toward community-based [programs], because we know that's more effective in the long run." However, she added, the DYS' resources are tied up in its secure facilities and cannot be shifted overnight. Guhman was appointed to lead the agency last year.

"We use [most of] our money for residential treatment — kids that are committed to us and those that are going back [home], for aftercare," Guhmansaid. "It doesn't leave a lot of money for diversion and families in need of services and prevention, but we have to fund what's there."

In August, the DYS announced $1.85 million in "Juvenile Justice Innovation Grants" aimed at reducing the use of confinement. The awards went to 12 nonprofit providers that contract with the DYS to implement programs and run facilities around the state. Guhman characterized the grants as "seed money": If reductions in confinement cut costs, the savings could then be leveraged into further investment in alternatives, creating a virtuous cycle.

But she also acknowledged that such infusions of funds have come and gone over the years without producing lasting change. In 2010, when Pat Arthur was partnering with the DYS, the agency used federal stimulus funds to create a "commitment-reduction contract" initiative. The contracts required the DYS' nonprofit providers to work with local juvenile judges to reduce commitments to the DYS by at least 10 percent each year (excluding certain serious offenses). Providers became eligible for additional grants if they reached a 20 percent target.

"The commitment-reduction contracts were a very innovative idea to provide an incentive to keep kids out of incarceration, and they were having a good impact," Arthur recalled. A 2012 progress report by Arthur showed that judicial districts met their goals during the contract period.

Tanner said the contracts created deeper collaborations between providers and courts to craft community-based alternatives. After the federal money ran out, however, reduced confinement rates did not translate into more ongoing funding from the DYS for community-based alternatives, as had been expected.

"When the numbers were reduced, there was no reinvestment in the community," Tanner said. "It created a real distaste and distrust among courts and the providers, [who felt] that DYS lied. 'They told us that if we did this, we'd get money, and it didn't happen.' "

Guhman, who did not work at the DYS until 2016, acknowledged the bad blood. "The providers got very accustomed to it and so did the judges, and they were angry, and are still angry — they think we cut their funding," she said.

While some judicial districts reduced their commitment rates significantly under the contracts, Guhman said, others did not. Statewide, "we didn't have the savings that people seemed to think we would have."

Nonetheless, the overall commitment rate did decline after 2010. Asked why the DYS didn't reinvest whatever savings it realized into community-based programs, Guhman cited inflation, aging facilities and a stagnant budget.

Guhman said she is working to improve the agency's relationship with judges and providers by involving them in decisions about how funding for community-based services is expended. She also hopes to reinvest more DYS resources in alternatives to confinement.

"We can say that when there is extra funding that's focused on community-based alternatives to confinement, the rates go down," Guhman said. "And then when that money runs out, they kind of stabilize back up again. The only way to lower confinements is to have these services available."

'Perverse incentives'

Arthur, who retired last year, said she is not familiar with recent developments at the DYS, but she expressed skepticism about the idea that a reduction in confinement must wait on improved alternatives.

"The disingenuous thing about saying, 'We can't close down beds until we have other options' is that you're not going to have other options until you shift the resources away from the beds," she said. "Until beds are taken offline, it's going to be in the financial interests of people running the [facilities] to keep them filled."

The eight DYS lockups were run by nonprofit providers until January; since then, the DYS has run all but one of the facilities directly, though it plans to contract them out again in 2018. Arthur said the incentive to keep facilities open exists regardless of whether they're privatized or not: "It's going to be there with the state running it too, just in a different form."

"Unless you can really break away from the perverse incentive of either keeping beds open for people to keep their jobs or keeping beds open to bring in the profit, you're not going to turn the ship around there," she said.

Asked whether the DYS should make downsizing facilities its first priority, Guhman said, "I understand that argument, and I agree with it to a certain point, but reality is reality. I've still got 400 kids sitting here that I've got to serve.

"Our strategy is to reduce the number of secure beds [and] increase the number of group homes or transition homes ... but like anything, when you're trying to do significant reform, you still have to do what you're doing while beginning to change."

Adam Baldwin, who is Guhman's deputy for system reform, noted that the DYS is required to provide a residential placement if a judge commits a youth to its custody. "We have to meet our statutory obligations and provide services," he said.

Tanner said shutting down a DYS facility too hastily could create more problems than it solves. "It would certainly speed up the process and compel us to have to do something, but I would be more in favor of targeted reductions," he said. When Tennessee shut down juvenile facilities in recent years, Tanner added, the state "then ended up overcrowding others and having issues with the remaining facilities.

"The reality is that we have not invested in creating infrastructure, in creating alternatives to confinement. ... That's where I think we lag behind," he said.

Arthur agreed that "the continuum of community programs needs to be shored up" in Arkansas. But, she added, "It's a cop-out to say there's no reform until we have alternatives, because there are paths to reforms that others states have shown and options that we created there [in Arkansas] ... that were just shut down."

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

The Arkansas Nonprofit News Network is an independent, nonpartisan news organization dedicated to producing journalism that matters to Arkansans. Our work is re-published by partner newsrooms across the state.