Every year Arkansas judges send about 350 youths into state custody. Some are sent to a secure lockup and some to a less restrictive environment, such as a group home.
The state Division of Youth Services (DYS), an agency within the much larger Department of Human Services, is responsible for those facilities.
Earlier this month, DYS officials and the governor announced that they had begun far-reaching changes in how the state treats troubled adolescents. Fewer young people will be sent to lockups and more will be supervised in community group homes.
Teenagers who get in trouble and are placed in state custody will be assessed without delay. A treatment plan will be written individually for each juvenile, and its effectiveness will be measured regularly. DYS officials will involve families from the beginning, with the goal of preparing the youth for his or her eventual release back into the community.
The news was greeted with enthusiasm by non-profit groups that work with young people. For example, Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families publicly thanked the governor and DYS for making the changes, which the organization said were long overdue.
The director of a group with the authority to monitor treatment of juveniles called the changes a “first step” and pledged to hold the administration accountable.
The governor called the changes “monumental,” adding that they would “fundamentally shift” the state’s approach toward young people who get in trouble with the law.
The focus will be on treating juveniles in the least restrictive settings, rather than punishing them by locking them in a secure unit. The new approach recognizes that the majority of youths in DYS custody committed non-violent offenses.
There are now seven facilities across Arkansas where juvenile offenders are placed. They’re in Alexander, Colt, Dermott, Harrisburg, Lewisville and two at Mansfield. The Juvenile Treatment Center at Dermott facility will be closed by June 30 of next year. It has 32 beds. The Colt center will be combined with the one in Harrisburg, which will be an all-female facility. It will expand from 26 beds to 32 beds.
The total number of beds in DYS residential treatment centers will decrease from 285 to 262. The total number of slots in specialized residential treatment programs will increase from 90 to 111 beds. Funding will be shifted accordingly.
Over time, the changes are expected to save the state money because they will reduce the use of confinement and commitment, which cost more than community programs. The purpose is to provide opportunities for non-violent offenders, such as vocational training and education, so that they successfully return to their homes. DYS custody should not be an inevitable first step toward prison time as an adult.
Juveniles who don’t need to be locked up should be better served under the new approach, while DYS staff will be able to focus more attention on the especially tough cases of troubled and potentially dangerous offenders.
The remaining five residential treatment facilities are currently run by state employees working for DYS. However, the division is preparing to privatize their operations, and will be seeking bids from private organizations in December.