Major Juvenile Justice Reform Signed into Law

Today was the bill signing ceremony for SB152 (now Act 189), landmark legislation that will begin the process of reforming the Arkansas juvenile justice system. The lead sponsors on the legislation were Senator Missy Irvin and Representative Charlene Fite. Governor Hutchinson and his Administration played a key role in developing the bill’s key provisions and championing the need for reform. They deserve major kudos for their efforts.

The bill also had broad support from and benefited from the hard work of juvenile judges, juvenile providers, and advocates, many of whom played key roles in helping shape the legislation through their collaborative work on the Youth Justice Reform Board and the Arkansas Supreme Court Commission on Children, Youth, and Families.

Major goals of the reform legislation, which was years in the making, included: reducing the number of youth and length of stay in juvenile lockups; redirecting funding from secure confinement to more effective (and cheaper), evidence-based community services; improving equity in the allocation of services in and across judicial districts; and enhancing the treatment of youth committed to the Division of Youth Services (DYS).

At its core, the legislation reflects the recognition that reform of the Arkansas juvenile system is desperately needed. Arkansas commits too many low-risk youth to expensive juvenile lockups when they could be more effectively and efficiently served in evidence-based community programs that have a greater likelihood of improving their long-term well-being and their odds of success.

The new legislation, which will take effect on July 1, 2020, includes many important changes in the juvenile justice system:

  • Requiring diversion agreements to be implemented by all juvenile courts based on validated assessment tools;
  • Requiring use of validated risk assessments for commitment of juveniles to DYS (the risk assessment system will be selected by the Juvenile Judges Committee of the Arkansas judicial Council and administered by the Administrative Office of the Courts);
  • Prohibiting the courts from committing juveniles to DYS for misdemeanor offenses if they are deemed low-risk by a validated assessment;
  • Mandating that courts make specific, written findings, based on certain criteria, before committing juveniles to DYS;
  • Requiring DYS to develop a reinvestment plan to redirect savings realized from reductions in the number of secure confinements;
  • Requiring DYS to develop a collaborative information sharing plan among DHS, the Administrative Office of the Courts, and other stakeholders;
  • Requiring DYS to use validated risk assessments that will form the basis of individualized treatment and placement decisions, with measurable goals and regular assessments; and
  • Requiring community-based alternative services to be evidence-based, developmentally appropriate, family centered, strengths-based and trauma-informed.

Act 189 builds on recent administrative steps Governor Hutchinson took to close two of the state’s juvenile lock-ups. However, it is important to note that while this legislation is far reaching and critically important, it is just the beginning of juvenile justice reform. It is not the end of juvenile justice reform.

After the 2019 session is over, the hard work of reform really begins as Arkansas implements the new legislation in the coming years. To help Arkansas meet that challenge, Sen. Missy Irvin has filed Senate Bill 506 to extend the tenure and work of the Youth Justice Reform Board (which sunsets in July of 2019) so that it can continue to help guide the reform effort.

It is likely that additional legislation will be needed in future sessions of the Arkansas General Assembly. One major challenge in the years ahead: even with the redirection of savings from locking up fewer kids and for shorter periods of time, new resources will undoubtedly be needed to ensure that community services are adequate and equitable in every region of the state. That will not happen overnight. But that is a conversation for another day.

Today Arkansans should take great pride in passing this legislation. I know I am proud of the work that AACF has done over the years to help Arkansas get to this point. AACF senior policy analyst Paul Kelly, who retired from AACF in mid-2017, led our juvenile justice reform work for over seven years. He is an unsung hero who was instrumental in helping build support and the conditions needed for reform to occur. Since Paul’s retirement, AACF staff have continued his advocacy through our collaborative work with DYS, judges, providers and other advocates on the Youth Justice Reform Board and the Arkansas Supreme Court Commission on Children, Youth, and Families.

We will continue our efforts to help promote additional reforms of the juvenile justice system in the years ahead. But for now, let’s celebrate today’s achievement and what it potentially means for Arkansas children.