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story.lead_photo.caption Governor Asa Hutchinson (left) talks about shrinking Medicare costs on Thursday, Jan. 4, 2018, at the State Capitol in Little Rock. - Photo by Thomas Metthe

Arkansas' juvenile-justice system needs an overhaul, and progress is underway, Gov. Asa Hutchinson said Tuesday.

Hutchinson expressed concern about how often young offenders were detained and how they were handled throughout the court process, during a luncheon held by the Political Animals Club, a decades-old group for people interested in Arkansas politics.

During the Little Rock meeting, the governor also revealed that he had arrived unannounced at a state-run Dermott juvenile treatment center in January to see the conditions of youths being held there.

In December, federally empowered watchdogs had reported that teenagers held at the Dermott facilities were confined in unheated dorms during below-freezing nights, had to shower in mold-infested stalls and lived with shortages of supplies such as shampoo.

"What I learned from my observation is that we need to try to have more services for our juvenile offenders in the community versus the incarceration model," Hutchinson said.

The Legislature just allocated $27.6 million of the Youth Services Division's budget for fiscal 2019 to "residential treatment" rather than community services, which got $16.9 million.

Hutchinson said he believes returning the lockups to private control would result in better oversight. The state took over operation of seven juvenile lockups in January 2017.

Tom Masseau, executive director of Disability Rights Arkansas, the nonprofit that reported the abuse at the Dermott facilities, said "all legislators need to make a surprise visit to these facilities and ask questions about services and look at the infrastructure."

"We have too many facilities," Masseau said.

Disability Rights supports redirecting money to community providers and reducing incarceration, he added.

Amy Webb, a spokesman for the Department of Human Services, said Tuesday that the Center for Children's Law and Policy will review the state's treatment services and the needs of the families and children involved in the system. The review will begin later this month.

The center focuses on reducing the needless incarceration of children.

Webb could not immediately say how much it will cost to have the state's juvenile treatment centers evaluated.

In January, Youth Services Division Director Betty Guhman said the evaluation would allow staff members to write a more articulate request-for-proposals to run the facilities, ultimately giving Arkansas better choices.

The agency expects to have a proposal listed next January, Webb said. Once selected, a private contractor would begin operating the sites in July.

At the luncheon, Hutchinson attributed positive changes in youth justice so far to "reform efforts" led by a handful of judges and youth advocates.

The Arkansas Supreme Court Commission on Children, Youth and Families, led by Justice Rhonda Wood, is in charge of an effort to spread risk screening to juvenile courts throughout the state. The goal is to reduce juvenile detentions by assessing children's levels of risk before their sentencing. The screening tool is being used in 18 of the state's 75 counties.

The screening requires children who are sent to court, and their parents, to answer questions about the children's home and school lives, resulting in a more complete picture of children, and taking into account mental health, family history, drug use and other factors.

Counties that are fully implementing the risk assessment process -- meaning they use it in every juvenile case before adjudication -- are reporting significant drops in incarcerations.

Between 2015 and 2017, Circuit Judge Troy Braswell's juvenile court had 47 percent fewer detentions, for example.

The youths who were locked up spent less time in jail, and reoffenses dropped by a third, court records also show.

Braswell serves Faulkner, Searcy and Van Buren counties.

Some judges say that using the screening tool gives their staffs more time to focus on more serious offenders.

Locking up children is costly. In fiscal 2017, Arkansas committed 451 youths, ages 11-19, to youth jails. Expenses ran up to $87,000 per child, roughly $238 a day, according to records.

The youth agency's fiscal 2017 annual report also shows that 86 percent of the children were detained for nonviolent offenses. About 25 percent were there for reoffending.

Hutchinson told club members that he hopes to see more juvenile-justice changes during the 2019 legislative session.

"We're really looking at this [juvenile justice]," he said. "I expect it to be a matter of attention and decision-making, both for the 2019 session, as well as continued change."

Wood's commission, which merged with the governor's appointed Youth Justice Reform Board months ago, is drafting a proposal next year that is intended to revamp the state's juvenile-justice system.

Rep. David Meeks, R-Greenbrier, a commission member, said he is "optimistic" about directing more resources to the system, as long as the panel makes sure it has "specifics about what the money will be used for."

Metro on 03/14/2018

Print Headline: Youth justice on right path, governor says

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