Advocates Urge Lawmakers For Juvenile Justice Reform

Oct 1, 2014

Advocates officials and lawmakers discuss the state's juvenile justice system.
Credit Sarah Whites-Koditschek

Legislators heard from advocates and officials hoping to reform the state's judicial justice system on Wednesday. Panelists told lawmakers Arkansas is institutionalizing too many young people for minor offenses and the costs are high.

Madelyn Keith is with the Arkansas Youth Services Association. She wants more intervention to happen at the community level.

"It's been proven over the years that when the state provides resources for services identified as needed by community stakeholders and these are implemented, then the commitments to the Division of Youth Services do decrease," she said.

Keith said incarceration should be limited to youth who pose a risk to public safety. She wants new standards to assess that level of risk at the time kids enter the system.

According to data from  the Administrative Office of the Courts, delinquency filings in Arkansas have increased from nearly 10,000 in 2010 to more than 11,500 a year in 2013.

According to the Arkansas Youth Service Provider Network, the estimated cost of institutionalizing a minor in Arkansas is $90,000 a year.

Judge Gary Isbell of the Fourteenth Judicial Circuit in northern Arkansas said it's best to invest in community interventions to help kids before they get into trouble.

"If we can divert them and get them away from court and not come into court, they can't be committed or sent any place, so that requires providing services in the community."

Paul Kelly is a Senior Analyst with Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families. He said more should be done to support at risk youth at home.

"The juvenile justice system really is a dumping ground for high need youth whose families, church, school and communities have failed to adequately address the underlying causes and issues that led to disruptive behaviors and court involvement," he said.

Tracy Steele is the Director of the Division of Youth Services at the Department of Human Services. He told legislators DHS offers educational programs for juveniles in the system.

"We don't commit any of the children to DYS, nor do we punish any of the kids who come to DYS, which makes us vastly different from, you may say, the adult system," he said.

But, he said, incarceration is not an ideal solution and kids often struggle with reintegration to their former lives once they leave. He said funds should be shifted to programs that support the transition.

"When they are getting ready to leave our system, we can intensify services, including educational services and now, for some of our older kids, job training services."

Advocates said they want more data on how public money is spent on juvenile justice.