Posted by Paul Kelly on July 15th 2013
During the 2013 session Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families supported the Beebe administration's "Close to Home" act (SB335). It allowed local judicial districts to develop local youth services board to recommend how the Division of Youth Services (DYS) could better spend existing resources to provide proven effective community-based programs and reserve incarceration for youth who posed a serious threat to public safety. If successful, the savings DYS realized from this more efficient and effective local approach would be returned to the local community to further expand alternatives to incarceration. Following this failed attempt to enact this controversial legislation Ron Angel resigned his position as Director of the Division of Youth Services (DYS). Mr. Angel's five-year tenure was one of the longest in recent history. In the dozen years prior, there were nine different DYS Directors.
Mr. Angel brought stability and progress to a juvenile justice system historically embroiled in controversy and stagnation. Forty-three beds were closed at the youth prison, commitments to DYS dropped by 25 percent, DYS educational programs were improved, and community-based alternatives to incarceration were expanded under his leadership. National foundations were finally taking favorable notice of Arkansas and considered investing their resources to continue reforms.
The defeat of legislation and the loss of a nationally recognized advocate for needed reforms now bring the state to another crossroads. Service providers, judges, advocates, and administrative officials who seemed clear about where the system was headed are now regrouping, wondering what's next - moving forward or back to the same old practices of the past.
Far too many youth are still being held in detention and incarcerated because there are not enough options for judges who must handle kids and families with complex problems. DYS is spending far too much of its limited budget for more costly confinement of youth who do not pose a serious threat to public safety. This leaves little money allowed for the kind of proven effective alternatives that are less costly and improve outcomes for the youth.
The question remains how to effectively resolve the historical tension between service providers wanting to protect their current operations; judges who demand wide judicial discretion but cannot obtain the kind of services they need and administrative officials who struggle to maintain, much less increase, funding. The stakes are very high for the youth who come in contact with the courts and their families who struggle to ensure that a youthful blunder does not become a lifelong sentence. AACF and all stakeholders must remain focused on a youth's capacity to change, the harmful consequences of incarceration, the need for more proven effective community-based alternatives, and putting the needs of children above their own.
You can find out more about our juvenile justice work here.