LITTLE ROCK – Every month in Arkansas, an average of 20 to 30 young people get in trouble with the law and are placed in the custody of the Division of Youth Services.
Two years ago, those teenagers were much more likely to spend time in a juvenile jail. They were more likely to wait months for an initial assessment to determine where they should be placed and how they should be treated.
They were more likely to have their lengths of stay extended, sometimes for relatively minor violations. If they acted out and were punished, it often meant they were sent to a secure lockup. That meant their treatment and school work would be put on hold for an indefinite period of time.
Last year there were 30 youths who had been in the system for two years or more, even though they were not violent, they were not sex offenders and no judge had ordered an extended stay for them.
It is much different today, members of the Senate Committee on Children and Youth were told last week. The director of the Division of Youth Services (DYS) reported on the many changes in youth treatment that have been put into effect over the past two years.
The governor, judges and legislators have all participated in the changes, with the goal of reducing the number of young people who are locked up in a secure location.
Instead, more are being supervised in group homes, under what is called community-based treatment.
Before May of last year, 352 youths were in a residential facility. Now there are 235.
For example, before May of last year, 73 young people were being held in a juvenile detention center operated by a county. Now there are only six.
That is an improvement, because generally there is no treatment in detention centers, rather they are simply places where youths are held.
DYS hopes to keep the number of youths in county-run detention centers in the single digits.
Previously, when a youth was admitted into the system, his or her treatment plan was a “cookie cutter,” meaning that all youths went through the same plan. Now, each youth has an individualized plan written by a team of specialists. Parents are allowed input. Substance abuse treatment is more common.
When a youth gets in trouble now, DYS takes about 20 days to complete an assessment. Before, they often waited months in a county-run detention center before they were placed in a setting where they could get treatment.
Typically, youth now stay in DYS custody for three to six months. Each youth has a set date on which he or she will be released, and that date can only be changed by the treatment team with approval from the director of DYS.
Now, the treatment team monitors a youth’s progress. That did not happen previously.
Act 189 of 2019 has made a difference in the number of young people sent to lockups. It requires all juvenile judges to use a “validated risk assessment system,” when placing offenders.
The intention is to make sentences uniform across the state, and eliminate discrepancies that have existed. In some parts of Arkansas, juveniles were sent to a lock-up for minor offenses. In other parts of the state, juveniles who committed the same minor offenses were ordered to complete community service and alternative programs.