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Agency Proposes New Limits on Time Kids Spend in Arkansas Jails

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Agency Proposes New Limits on Time Kids Spend in Arkansas Jails

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Support for Curcio’s reporting on this project also came from the Fund for Journalism on Child Well-Being, a program of the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism at the University of Southern California.

Other stories in this series include:

As kids languish in lockups, rehabilitation chances fade

Agency Proposes New Limits on Time Kids Spend in Arkansas Jails
Saturday, March 9, 2019

Soon, Arkansas won’t jail kids for longer than six months, in most cases, state officials said Friday.

A draft policy revealed by the Division of Youth Services says that children assessed as low-risk will receive sentences of about three months or less; children who are moderate- or high-risk would be incarcerated up to six months.

On average, youths in the division’s custody spend 10.5 months incarcerated, according to an analysis of state data by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. That exceeds the five- to eight-month length most sentences are expected to last.

The 10-month incarceration average doesn’t include the weeks or months youths wait in county detention.

Newly appointed agency Director Michael Crump acknowledged Friday that “children are staying a lot longer than 10 months, even when they’re not serious offenders.”

On Sunday, the newspaper reported how sentenced Arkansas youths are subject to a juvenile justice system that can extend their sentences without any formal due process or because necessary counseling isn’t available or because they have to wait in county youth jails until a state bed opens.

Young offenders and lawyers involved in their cases had told the Democrat-Gazette that the long waits breed hopelessness.

More than 80 percent of incarcerated Arkansas youths — 402 children last year — are locked up for more than six months, according to state data. By comparison, only a third of children in juvenile detention nationally stay that long.

Experts consider more than six months of incarceration for most teens to be detrimental. The longer young people stay behind bars the harder it is for them to merge back into family and home life, and the more likely it is they will commit more crimes, they say.

Other states, such as Kentucky and Georgia, report that creating sentencing limits allowed their governments to divert funds typically spent on incarceration into more effective community-based programs.

In Arkansas, incarcerated youths aren’t given release dates when they’re first sentenced. Instead, youths must complete a long list of assigned goals before being allowed to go home. Youth prison staff, using personal observation, decide whether those goals were met.

The Youth Services Division, not a judge, unilaterally decides when to release a child.

The draft policy, set to go into effect by July, will offer youths time lines for the first time.

RISK LEVELS

“We have to do a better job of monitoring juveniles while they’re in our custody,” Crump told a joint meeting of the Youth Justice Reform Board and the Arkansas Supreme Court Commission on Children, Youth and Families on Friday.

The agency needs to make sure “they don’t slip through the cracks,” he added. “In the past, we sort of wait to hear back from the provider, from the therapist, to kind of give us an indication to see if it’s time to release this child.”

Crump’s comments came in response to a presentation of the draft sentencing policy made by Adam Baldwin, the division’s “manager for system reform.”

Some panel members asked why the division proposed only two sentencing tiers, one for low-risk youths and one for moderate- and high-risk teens, rather than three.

“Moderate and high risk are not the same,” said Jefferson County Circuit Judge Earnest Brown Jr. “I want DYS to recognize those three distinct levels.”

Brown also expressed concern about the idea of fixed sentences.

“We need flexibility,” he said.

Risk levels are determined by a preferred assessment known as the SAVRY, short for the Structured Assessment of Violence Risk in Youth. Parents and children answer questions about the child’s home and school life.

Assessment results paint a more complete picture of a child, taking into account mental health, family history, drug use and other factors, research shows.

A new state law, stemming from legislation prompted by the joint panel’s efforts, requires courts to conduct the assessment on all youths before they’re committed to the division’s custody.

The division’s new policy also will prevent the agency from extending sentences as punishment when youth commit minor rules infractions or have outbursts stemming from behavioral disorders. The new rules also would prevent officials from giving child inmates “time-outs” — a practice that moves children from facility to facility in response to misbehavior.

Youth who are sent to time-out stay, on average, three months longer overall than youth without time-outs, according to state data.

And the new policy requires staff to hold a hearing if they want to extend a youth’s sentence. Attorneys for families entrenched in the juvenile justice system previously told the Democrat-Gazette that youths’ sentences were being needlessly extended.

At Friday’s meeting, Baldwin said that just a handful of formal documented requests to extend sentences were submitted to the division in the last 10 years.

“That told us we had a problem internally,” he said.

Baldwin also mentioned a division report released last month that found agency staff didn’t match sentences with prevailing research and that even though the division “cannot control whether the court commits a youth to its custody,” it had the “discretion to control most factors related to length of stay… including when to discharge youth.”

“Youth case plans are not individualized, not based on assessments, and not meaningfully tied to length of stay,” the report asserted.

Agency staff didn’t say how this policy would affect kids who are already locked up.

Keesa Smith, deputy director of the Department of Human Services, which oversees the division, said she wanted broad support for the sentencing caps and that agency staff would meet with stakeholders to tweak the draft policy as needed.

“We are committed to coming to the table and trying to do what’s best for the kids,” she said.

[This story was originally published by amandacurcio.wordpress.com.]