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Violence not prime in jailing of youths in Arkansas; report also notes 1 region tops rest in state

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Photographs by AP file photo

Sen. Stephanie Flowers, D-Pine Bluff, is shown in this 2014 file photo.

Most Arkansas youths thrown in juvenile jail last year were nonviolent offenders, a newly released state report shows.

It is also more likely that a jailed child came from southeast Arkansas, where judges sent more youths to lockup than those in other areas, including more populated urban centers such as Little Rock.

On the basis of the numbers, such a child was probably referred to juvenile court by school officials, even for petty offenses such as truancy or mouthing off to teachers.

It is also most likely that the child was black and male. Nearly half of all juvenile confinements in fiscal 2017 were male and black, yet black male youths make up only about 20 percent of the state's total adolescent population.

Arkansas jailed 451 youths, ages 11 to 19, in the year that ended June 30, spending as much as $87,000 per child -- roughly $238 a day. It costs the Arkansas Department of Correction nearly $60 a day, on average, to house one adult inmate.

In fiscal 2016, the state locked up 467 youths. The previous year that number was 526, and in fiscal 2014, it was 486.

These figures were among the findings contained in the state Youth Services Division's 2017 annual report, which was shared with lawmakers during a Tuesday meeting of House and Senate committees that deal with youth concerns.

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Discussion grew heated when legislators grappled with the reasons why children become entrenched in "the system."

"We've built a school-to-prison pipeline," said Sen. Stephanie Flowers, a Pine Bluff Democrat and chairman of the Senate Children and Youth Committee.

"It's offensive to me, and it ought to be offensive to all of us."

Past investigations of the state's juvenile justice system -- often led by Disability Rights Arkansas, a federally empowered watchdog group -- have revealed serious problems.

Judges jailed youths for skipping school or running away from home. Truant teenagers were locked up alongside serious violent offenders. Children in certain regions are treated more harshly than others for the same crime because sentencing is ultimately determined by individual judges. Treatment centers reeked of urine. Facility workers used shackles, full-body restraints or pepper spray to subdue noncompliant teens. Education on-site was woefully inadequate. The practice of solitary confinement continues.

More recently, accusations of a conspiracy to assault and needlessly punish detained teenagers put two former supervisors and three officers of the White River County Juvenile Detention Center in federal court. The supervisors pleaded guilty to the charges; the officers entered innocent pleas after being indicted.

Betty Guhman, director of the Youth Services Division, told lawmakers she hopes to cut juvenile incarceration numbers through policy change and creating additional partnerships with communities, judges and other state agencies.

Some of these efforts have already begun though "stagnant" funding remains a challenge, she added. The youth agency relies mostly on the state's General Revenue Fund.

Among changes, the division overhauled how it oversees individual cases. A review is triggered anytime a youth stays in jail longer than originally sentenced. More employees are available to answer calls after hours. Staff members now follow each child "from intake, to treatment, to aftercare," Guhman said.

The agency will also monitor private contractors monthly to ensure that the youths' outcomes meet expectations, she said.

The state currently outsources the management of youth lockups, community-based programs, emergency shelters and group homes.

Seven state-run juvenile treatment centers are expected to return to private control next summer.

A new two-person data team within the agency will look at existing information to "drive" decisions, including where to direct funds or determine what type of community programs are needed in specific areas.

The team also expects to gain access to Arkansas Community Correction data so it can start tracking recidivism.

Right now, officials only track how many juveniles are jailed for committing a first-time offense -- 75 percent of all juveniles in fiscal 2017 -- or for "re-committing." They don't know how many of these youths will later go to prison as adults.

During the meeting, Sen. Alan Clark, R-Lonsdale, suggested tracking whether youths in state custody were attending a religious program and if they had a father in the household.

"You put those two things together, you'll find it will be close to none," Clark said. "Wouldn't it be good for the state to recommend those two things?"

Clark said too many programs, beginning in the 1960s, only helped single-parent families. That is why more children end up in juvenile court, he said.

"Aren't we moving backwards?" he asked.

Flowers later admonished Clark for his comments.

"These children should not be written off," she said. "It's about poverty. ... It's not because they don't have a dad."

During the meeting, Guhman repeated her commitment to overhauling juvenile justice in Arkansas. It's been a year since she officially took the helm of the Youth Services Division, and she still hopes to see the agency "move into the future."

"We needed to ask, 'What are the core pieces about what we want to be about?'" she said. "And 'how do we underpin it in everything we do?'"

Betty Guhman, director of the Youth Services Division, is shown in this file photo.

A Section on 09/13/2017

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