In 2008, Wendy Jones’ teenage son, Corby, began getting into trouble with the law: skipping school, doing drugs, stealing. His behavior soon landed him in Benton County juvenile court, followed by a stay in the local juvenile detention center, or JDC, a 36-bed, jail-like facility in Bentonville, not far from the home offices of Walmart.
Corby was just the sort of youth who might be expected to stop dabbling in illegal activity after a brush with the juvenile justice system. His mother had a good job with the city of Rogers, and, though she was raising Corby and his sister alone, she had a strong social network in her community. In theory, a night or two of detention at the JDC would have provided the jolt needed to make such a kid reassess his future.
But as with so many other teenage offenders, being locked up did little to alter Corby’s trajectory for the better. His drug use continued, and the court responded by clamping down harder, creating a cycle familiar to observers of the system.
“I had connections that most parents didn’t when I was going through the JDC with my son,” Jones said recently. “But as a parent, regardless of who you are, where you work, or who you know, it’s the most lonely, terrifying experience to go through with your child.”
“Basically, [JDC] was the only high school he went to, because he was in and out so much,” she recalled. “He went through all the counseling, all the rehab … really, anything that was offered.” Yet the court’s default response to Corby’s behavior was always yet another round of the juvenile equivalent of jail.
Jones describes herself as a “tough-love mom” who is “all for punishment” when necessary. But by the time her son aged out of the juvenile system in 2011, she had reached her own verdict about JDC detention, at least for Corby: “It was worthless. ”
“It was kind of at that point where it’s like, 'OK, this isn’t working,’ ” she said. “They’re still getting locked up over and over and over.” She pointed to statistics showing that the juvenile incarceration rate in the United States is the highest in the developed world. “That’s pathetic. … We shouldn’t have to keep building prisons for children.”
But then, around the time that Corby aged out, things began to change in Northwest Arkansas.
Juvenile detention rates dropped. Alternatives to incarceration expanded. In 2013, a national program called the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative began partnering with the court in Benton County and its counterpart in adjacent Washington County. Jones was asked to serve as the parent representative on the local JDAI board.
“They asked me because they really wanted the parents’ perspective, instead of it just being law enforcement, judges, prosecutors, defenders — you know, all the typical people involved,” she said. “When you’re talking about your child, and you’re in it, it’s completely different from being on the outside looking in. You’re living it, day to day.”
Jones served on the board for two years as the program got off the ground. Today, she said, she sees the county “actually working with kids. We’re not just locking them up. … I can’t say enough about the system and [Benton County Circuit] Judge [Tom] Smith right now. I truly believe in what they’re doing.”
Smith, who has been the county’s juvenile division judge since 2013, said his court uses confinement only “when we have to use it. We don’t use it just to use it. … The philosophy is lock up last, not lock up first.”
In 2009, 859 kids cycled through the Benton County JDC. In 2016, JDC intakes had decreased to 467, a 46 percent drop. Youths spent a total of 6,557 days detained at the JDC in 2009; in 2016, total detention days had declined to 2,844. Smith’s JDC average daily population is now so low — it averaged between six and seven youths per day in 2017 — that a portion of the facility will soon be permanently converted into an emergency shelter.
Smith succinctly made the argument for reducing juvenile confinement: “It saves money, it saves resources, but more importantly, the data shows that once you start locking up a kid, the propensity to get locked up [again] increases tenfold. Once you start that process, their propensity is to be in the system longer.”
Locking up fewer kids hasn’t led to more juvenile crime. In fact, the number of delinquency petitions filed by the Benton County prosecutor dropped by 32 percent from 2009 to 2016. And at the same time that the JDC population was shrinking, the population of Benton County as a whole was rapidly expanding — it’s now the state’s second-largest county — meaning the per capita decrease in confinement has been even greater.
Similar trends have unfolded next door. In 2008, the Washington County JDC detained 915 kids over the course of the year; in 2016, intakes stood at 507. Like its neighbor to the north, the county’s general population has surged over the past 15 years as the economy has boomed in Northwest Arkansas.
Circuit Judge Stacey Zimmerman, who has presided over juvenile court in Washington County for 19 years, echoed Judge Smith on the hidden costs of excessive lockups. “The more entrenched they are in the juvenile justice system, the greater the chance they’re going to end up as an adult criminal,” she said. To that end, Zimmerman’s court has also embraced alternatives to detention, including a new evening reporting center that opened in April.
The changes in Northwest Arkansas are all the more striking when contrasted with the state as a whole. Other reform-minded jurisdictions in Arkansas have successfully reduced confinement in recent years — among them, juvenile courts in Pulaski and Faulkner counties — but the state overall continues to lock up large numbers of children.
There is little statewide data on the use of detention at county facilities, but a national census of residential facilities performed every two years by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention provides limited information. According to the OJJDP, there were about 99 kids held in the 14 JDCs across Arkansas on an average day in 2007. (In rural areas, a single JDC serves multiple counties.) In 2015, the most recent year that the OJJDP performed its snapshot, the one-day detention count for Arkansas had increased to 210.
Local juvenile detention centers are only half of the youth incarceration picture. The juvenile justice system distinguishes between “detentions” at county-run JDCs and “commitments” to treatment facilities operated by the state Department of Human Services’ Division of Youth Services, which is intended to rehabilitate more serious offenders. Detentions are typically measured in periods of days or weeks; kids committed to the DYS by a judge’s order may remain confined for months or even years as they complete the terms of their treatment plan.
In Northwest Arkansas, the number of youths committed to the DYS plummeted over the last decade. In 2007, according to DYS data, Benton County committed 29 kids to state facilities. A decade later, in 2017, the number was 5.
Washington County sent 35 kids to the DYS in 2006 — more commitments in a single year than the 29 made by the same juvenile court over the five-year period from 2013 to 2017. (The statewide DYS commitment rate also dropped from 2007 to 2017, but the percent decrease was just one-third as much as the decline in Washington and Benton counties over that period.)
“If a kid comes to DYS out of Benton County, we’ve exhausted all of our options. That’s just the way we view it,” Judge Smith said. He ticked off various alternatives to the DYS, including Youth Challenge — a program of the Arkansas National Guard — or vocational training through Job Corps.
Typically, Smith said, he will only commit a youth to the DYS who has committed rape or a violent crime involving a firearm. Even in some of those cases, he will first try inpatient psychiatric treatment at a facility such as Piney Ridge, in Fayetteville. “It’s when they refuse to get help … that we have to put them in DYS.”
Though such reforms stand out in Arkansas, what’s happening in Benton and Washington counties is consistent with national trends. The OJJDP’s census found 108,000 juvenile offenders locked up in the U.S. in 2000, a number that includes both detentions and commitments. In 2015, there were about 48,000. Arkansas is one of the few states in the nation that has failed to reduce confinement by double digits since the 1990s.
In one sense, the reforms are as simple as two judges concluding that they must incarcerate fewer young people. In another sense, though, the changes are anything but simple. It’s not that Zimmerman and Smith are ignoring delinquent behavior; it’s that they’re using different, finer tools than the blunt instrument of punitive confinement.
Electronic monitoring, substance abuse treatment, mental health treatment, shelters and group homes, family counseling, mentorships, job training — all are alternatives the judges may deploy in lieu of detention or commitment to the DYS.
Zimmerman cited an expansion of diversion efforts as one key to reducing confinement in Washington County. Those include an “adventure club” that provides outdoor activities such as kayaking or hiking; “Girls Circle,” a peer-to-peer support group; and, a family therapy program, Creating Lasting Family Connections. With the assistance from the Washington County quorum court, several of Zimmerman’s staff have become certified instructors in the program.
Diversion cases are those that do not progress to a formal hearing before Zimmerman, the judge explained. “A diversion officer meets with a kid who receives a ticket for some nonviolent, non-felony crime, like shoplifting … before the kid is even filed on with a [delinquency] petition, before the kid even comes in the courtroom to see me.
“Each kid is different. Maybe it’s just going to be a meeting with the kid, and they’re already scared to death, and they’re like ‘OK, I’ll never do this again,’ and the [officer] just warns and dismisses it. Maybe the kid needs some counseling, so the officer calls the counselor and gets an appointment set up. Or maybe the parent needs some parenting classes. So that diversion officer is kind of a triage person to get what the kid needs and what the family needs.”
When Zimmerman first took the bench in 1999, there were no diversion officers in Washington County. She now has two staff devoted to the role full-time.
Crucially, Smith said, alternative programs are not necessarily interchangeable from case to case, even when the offense is the same. One youth arrested for theft may be feeding a drug problem; another may have never touched drugs but could have serious problems at home. Calibrating the right response requires a careful examination of what is happening in a child’s life to contribute to his or her delinquent behavior — in the jargon, a “risk assessment.”
“We do testing to find out what the kid needs that might have caused the behavior,” Smith said. “We don’t just go, ‘You did this, so we’re going to do X to you.’ We need to know what caused it. That’s why testing is such a big part of the rehabilitation process for juveniles. It dictates what to do.”
Drew Shover, the chief juvenile probation officer in Benton County, said his staff has been trained to depend on risk assessments to determine how to handle each youth. In March, the county began using a specialized tool called the Structured Assessment of Violence Risk in Youth, or SAVRY, which was designed by researchers to identify criminogenic risk factors in different categories: substance abuse, family stability, education, and so on. Youth, and sometimes their families, undergo an exhaustive battery of questions, the answers to which guide the youth’s eventual disposition by the court.
“When we started getting trained on risk assessments in 2014, that really helped out,” Shover said. “Staff were looking at cases differently. You can put only so much of your professionalism into a case and you can be dead wrong … A [juvenile] officer says, ‘Oh, I really know my kids’ — then they can read a SAVRY and quickly realize how much they don’t know about their kids. … It basically gives you facts. Takes all the subjectivity out of it.”
Above Shover’s desk is posted a document titled “Benton County Service Matrix: Risk/Need/Responsivity,” which categorizes the many dispositional options available to Shover and Judge Smith, from drug court to after school programming to inpatient mental health. The matrix is intended to pair each kid with the right program.
“We don’t just put them in this program here because it’s available,” Shover said, pointing to one column. “Because what’s the point of using a tool involving a risk rating if you’re not going to follow the model?”
Shover has been in the juvenile justice field for 23 years. During that time, he has filled many roles at the Benton County probation office — intake officer, probation officer, supervisor — but he said the use of risk assessments to guide the disposition of juvenile cases has fundamentally changed the way he approaches his job.
“I’ve learned more in the past four or five years than the first 13 working here,” he said. “People will ask me, ‘So you were wrong before?’ And yeah, I was wrong.”
Jason Szanyi, a deputy director at the D.C.-based Center for Children's Law and Policy, has worked with the juvenile courts in Benton and Washington counties since 2013 to implement the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative. A project of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, JDAI has now been deployed in some 300 communities throughout the U.S. (In 2018, Pulaski County will become Arkansas’s third JDAI site.) Though many of the changes in Northwest Arkansas were underway before JDAI arrived, Szanyi’s role is to help the counties continue pushing forward with reform.
“The best way to think of it is that we’re kind of like coaches,” he said. “We’re really trying to educate folks in the system about what the best practices are and how to use their data strategically. … The JDAI model involves bringing together those who have a stake in the juvenile justice system — public schools, law enforcement, community-based service providers and others — to think and collaborate and try to come up with better, more effective interventions for kids.”
Szanyi said the focus of JDAI is to reduce unnecessary detentions before adjudication (the equivalent of a trial). “So, I’m not talking about placement and commitment to DYS. I’m talking about: If a kid gets arrested, are they brought to detention? Are they released? Are they released to an alternative program?”
Research shows that even short-term detentions can have a harmful effect, he said. “Two or three days may not sound like a lot, but it’s enough time for a kid to fall behind in school, for a kid to associate with [other] kids who have been in the system for awhile — and we don’t want kids learning negative behaviors from kids who are in detention for more serious offenses.”
Although JDAI is focused on what happens to youths between arrest and adjudication, Szanyi said cutting back on short-term lockups tends to also reduce long-term commitments to the DYS.
“By reducing the detention population, what we find is that we get fewer kids who move into the ‘deep end’ of the system, where they may be placed with DYS or end up in the adult criminal justice system,” he said. A recent Casey Foundation study of JDAI sites across the nation found a 57 percent reduction in state commitments over the time that the initiative was operational in each location. “Benton and Washington county have had that experience too, but they were already committing far, far fewer kids to DYS than many other counties in Arkansas [before JDAI].”
Shover said JDAI has helped the county in two key areas: community partnerships and data. “We collaborate a lot more with our community stakeholders now … And also, we collect data so much better than we used to. It used to be [only] simple stuff — detentions, commitments. But now we’re looking at how effective our programming is: The things that we do, do they have an impact?”
The JDAI model also encourages sharing information across its many sites, which has led to major new initiatives in both Northwest Arkansas counties. After Zimmerman and her staff studied successful JDAI programs elsewhere in the country (the DYS paid for site visits, she said), the judge concluded that Washington County needed an entirely new program: an evening reporting center.
At the center, offenders are required to spend their afterschool hours (from 4 to 8 p.m.) under supervision but return home for the night. Established in collaboration with Teen Action and Support Center, a Rogers-based nonprofit, the evening reporting center opened in April in a rent-free space in downtown Springdale provided by the Jones Trust, a local foundation. It provides a sanction for offenders that is more restrictive than regular probation but stops far short of incarceration.
“Our medium-to-high risk kids are getting services where they are, where they go to school,” Zimmerman said. “It’s really keeping our kids in our community and getting them the help they need — for the kids that are not violent threats to society.”
Washington County Juvenile Court Director Norma Frisby said the evening reporting center is most often used as a graduated sanction for youths who violate their terms and conditions of release. Since it opened last spring, about 60 teens have been assigned to the reporting center rather than being locked up at the JDC.
“We’re trying to reduce the number of kids that go into detention for minor violations or technical violations,” Frisby said. “Instead of requesting a petition for revocation of probation, the officer can just give them this as a sanction. If you committed a new offense, between now and the time that you have to come to court for that new offense, you’re going to come to the ERC for 14 or 20 days or whatever it might be … instead of putting them in detention for 20 days.
“They have to be picked up and dropped off by a parent, and it’s just that inconvenience of them not being able to be free during those evening hours. It reduces them getting into more trouble.” If a youth repeatedly fails to show up, he may still be sent to the JDC.
The DYS provided a $10,000 grant to buy equipment, including furniture and laptops for the center, Frisby said, but most of the resources originated locally. The building, which is undergoing renovations, will eventually house several nonprofits that serve youth in the area.
“We were hopeful that DYS would continue to help us financially to start these programs up and carry them on through state money,” Zimmerman said. “That happened on a very small level, but not as much as we hoped … and so that’s when I went to our Washington County Quorum Court. They saw our data, they heard what we had to say, and they funded us two probation officers and a full-time counselor for our evening reporting center. That was huge.”
Even with support from the county and partner nonprofits, the evening reporting center operates on an uncomfortably tight margin. Due to limited staff, it closes down during the winter holidays, Frisby said.
“Obviously, the program could be so much bigger and better, and the need is there,” she said. “And also the location — we could always use one of these in Fayetteville too, but at the time when we collected the data to see where we needed an ERC, we were getting the most referrals from Springdale.”
“It always comes down to money. … Hopefully, eventually, we’ll have more staff.”
Benton County, meanwhile, is undertaking the ambitious project of transforming a wing of its JDC into a shelter, rather than a lockup.
Like the evening reporting center, the shelter will serve as a less-restrictive alternative to incarceration for certain youths who get arrested or violate their probation. But it will also provide a safe place for runaways, and for youth that need to be removed from their homes temporarily.
Until last year, Shover said, Benton County sent such youth to a shelter in nearby Centerton operated by Youth Bridge, the nonprofit provider officially contracted by the DYS to provide community-based services to Northwest Arkansas. Last December, Youth Bridge moved its shelter to Springdale in Washington County instead, citing a greater need in that community.
“They kind of pulled the plug on us a little bit,” Shover said. “That’s a big challenge when you have alternatives and you lose one.” After the Centerton shelter closed, Shover said, detentions in Benton County began to rise as a result — so the county decided to start its own. The project, which will cost an estimated $328,000, is to be paid for with a grant from the Endeavor Foundation, a local entity, along with a smaller appropriation from the Benton County Quorum Court.
Construction will begin in early 2018 and will include a separate entrance to keep the space entirely distinct from the JDC.
To be licensed as a shelter, Shover said, “it has to be out of sight and sound from the detention population. These kids are not in a secure facility. … So now, law enforcement gets to bring kids into a shelter and not a detention center.” It’s a distinction that matters, he said. “Getting strip-searched is a big deal, and getting deloused is a big deal.”
“We’re going to have kids flee from here; that’s inevitable,” Shover acknowledged. “But we also know that our kids who shouldn’t be in a locked facility are not going to be in a locked facility. … Most of the time kids do not run away from shelters … and that goes to show that those alternatives are OK. We go with the majority, not the minority.”
“It’s similar with ankle bracelets,” he noted. “We don’t have a big, big problem with kids cutting off ankle bracelets. I mean, we have some that do — but the majority don’t. … It’s an exchange. Either you’re going to pay for them to be locked up, or you’re going to pay for them to have some alternatives, and I can assure you that that’s a cost savings: using alternatives.”
Though Benton County has dramatically cut detentions and commitments, the goal is to keep pushing the needle downward. “We’re looking to reduce the confined youth population another 40 percent. That’s our performance indicator,” Shover said.
The shelter will be one key to doing that, he added. “It gives us options. It’s going to be quite the endeavor, but it’s exciting.”
The I-49 corridor from Fayetteville to Bentonville can seem a world apart from the rest of Arkansas. Powered by Walmart, Tyson Foods and other corporate behemoths, the region’s economy and population have exploded over the last several decades. The prosperity isn’t shared by everyone — there are an estimated 19,000 children living in poverty in Benton and Washington counties, according to U.S. Census data — but it’s obvious that the rapid growth is a good problem for local policymakers to have.
Can the reforms in Northwest Arkansas be replicated across the state? Or will they be limited to those few places in Arkansas with the human and economic capital to create and sustain alternatives?
“I think it’s a struggle for rural communities and rural juvenile courts, because they don’t have a lot of money,” Zimmerman said. “They don't have the tax base that other, bigger counties do, and they might not have foundations that they can go and ask for grants and such things.”
But, she added, judges and probation officers everywhere can benefit from JDAI — its emphasis on data, its philosophy on the risks inherent in even short-term detentions. “You can bring that back to your jurisdiction and be more mindful,” she said.
“I have to tell you, it is a lot of work, and you have to be really committed to your kids and your families and be willing to try new things. Sometimes they might work, sometimes they might not. … If there are judges in the state — or out-of-state — that want to come and see the things we’re doing in Washington and Benton Counties to see if they can replicate it, we would welcome people to come.”
Jason Szanyi said many JDAI sites across the country are located in areas without booming economies. “In a jurisdiction that has fewer resources … it’s even more important to take a look at how they're using the folks within the system and the limited resources that are available to work with young people,” he said. “The initiative has a structure to it that is designed to help any system become more efficient and more effective.”
Smith acknowledged Benton County enjoys advantages. “Northwest Arkansas has a lot of resources in place and a lot of people trying to do this, so we’re very blessed. … I’m sure we have less juvenile violent crime than in some areas … because our economy is so good — I get all that.”
However, he noted, some alternatives don’t require a huge infusion of cash. “Anybody can have home monitoring units. Anybody can get programs set up through a church or a nonprofit. A lot of this is not high-tech stuff. … I got some volunteers from one of our local CrossFit guys to come over and team up with the sheriff to use their gym, and we just gave these boys something to do three days a week to be proud of. That didn’t cost any money. Now, it took some time, but ... all those kids have done well.”
In a small, rural county, Smith said, “you would really have to have outside the box thinking” to come up with alternatives. “I would immediately think, well, OK, we’re going to have to shift toward law enforcement, fire department, municipal organizations being my mentors. … You’re not going to have as many big churches … but you can get small ones to do it, too. You have to be willing to get out there and get people involved.”
Theoretically, a system does exist to provide alternatives throughout the state: the DYS. In addition to operating the eight secure residential facilities, the DYS’ mission also includes providing “community-based prevention [and] diversion” programs. It contracts with 13 nonprofit providers to deliver those services statewide.
In Northwest Arkansas, the community-based provider is Youth Bridge — yet Youth Bridge is not the delivery mechanism for most of the alternatives that have been deployed to such positive effect in Benton and Washington counties. Instead, Smith and Zimmerman have sought and found assistance from other entities: nonprofits, foundations, local government, businesses, churches and so on.
“Youth Bridge is not a big percentage of it,” Smith said. “They’re our state provider, but they’re just one stakeholder.”
Darryl Rhoda, the CEO of Youth Bridge, is also the president of the Arkansas Youth Service Provider's Association. He had a simple answer when asked why providers like his organization don’t offer more alternatives to juvenile judges: “In 20 years, we haven’t gotten a raise [from the state] … and our costs just keep going up. They don’t give us enough money.”
In addition to its shelter in Springdale, Youth Bridge operates an inpatient substance abuse treatment facility, Journey House. It also provides outpatient drug counseling, electronic monitoring and various forms of therapy for children and families. Youth Bridge coordinates with Smith, Zimmerman and other juvenile judges in an eight-county service area to determine how to spend the limited money it receives annually from the DYS.
Zimmerman agreed that Youth Bridge lacks the funding to deliver the array of alternatives needed by her court.
“We have to prioritize,” Zimmerman said. “I don’t want to take away from inpatient drug treatment, shelter beds, ankle monitors or individual counselors for our kids that need counseling. So when we’re looking at what’s most important with that DYS money … those are the things we really need from our provider. By the time that they provide those things, there’s really not any money left over for JDAI stuff.”
“I think everybody knows that we need more community alternatives,” Rhoda said. Statewide, he said, “we’re spending $18-19 million on community alternatives, and we’re spending about twice that on incarcerating about 500 kids” in DYS facilities.
(The DYS budgeted $27.6 million for residential services in the 2017 state fiscal year. Taxpayers spend around $87,000 annually per youth housed at the state's largest secure facility, the Arkansas Juvenile Assessment and Treatment Center.)
“I have folks working in emergency shelters making barely minimum wage, trying to supervise eight kids per worker. … There’s something wrong with that,” Rhoda said. “We should have twice the amount of dollars we had 20 years ago, or three times — but we don’t, and you’re going to get what you pay for.”
He also voiced frustration that the DYS contracts are unclear about desired outcomes. “My pressure as the CEO of Youth Bridge is that the courts keep demanding more and more of my agency, and I’m not getting any more resources. … If somebody’s critical of providers, I’m going to be very defensive, because they’re not the issue. It’s that we need a more competent system.”
DYS Director Betty Guhman said that the agency’s long-term goal is to "rebalance our funding more toward community-based [alternatives], because we know that's more effective in the long run." However, lockup facilities eat up most of the agency’s funding each year, and there is little appetite in the state legislature for increasing the DYS’ budget.
"We use our money for residential treatment — kids that are committed to us and those that are going back [home], for aftercare,” Guhman said. “It doesn't leave a lot of money for diversion.”
That’s why some reform-minded judges have decided local resources are their only option.
“There’s a lot of money spent if you have to lock up kids,” Smith said. “Well, if you’re going to keep them from being locked up, you need to be willing to spend some money to do that too.”
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 arknews.org.