For several years, NCYL has been actively working to reform the juvenile justice system in Arkansas. NCYL has collaborated with government and community stakeholders, including judges, academics, youth services staff, and youth advocates, to reach consensus on a reform path. That consensus was turned into a Comprehensive Plan that sets forth the 10 major goals of the reform effort.
Progress has been made on a number of those goals, including a reduction in the number of youth committed to the most restrictive placements in Arkansas; and shifting the focus from placing youth in secure facilities to developing services in their home communities. Since 2006, the number of youth committed to the Arkansas Division of Youth Services (DYS) has dropped by 27 percent, from 647 to 472. The average length of stay in state treatment centers fell from 216 days in 2008 to 175 days in 2011. In addition, the total number of beds at the largest juvenile secure facility under DYS control has gone from 143 to 100.
DYS, to its credit, has taken major steps to improve services to youth in or near their home communities. That's an important step toward keeping young people out of large locked facilities. And yet racial disparities still exist in Arkansas's juvenile justice system. NCYL has decided to intervene. With NCYL’s help, DYS has embarked on an effort to address and reduce racial disparities, with the two initial areas of focus being youth committed to DYS, and decision-making processes within DYS.
NCYL staff has identified the offenses that most frequently lead to commitment of youth to DYS, with minor or low-level offenses among the most frequent. Drawing conclusions from this, however, is difficult. The offense that a youth ultimately pleads to as part of a plea bargain might be less serious than the initial charge(s). Or a youth may have been adjudicated on a low-level charge and given an opportunity to remain in the community but, because of non-compliance with a requirement imposed by the juvenile court judge, the youth is committed to DYS for both the underlying charge and the subsequent violation. Other factors and scenarios are possible.
DYS is looking carefully at the circumstances under which its employees are making decisions that can extend or shorten the time youth are under DYS supervision. DYS generally decides the release dates of youth who are committed to DYS. All youth undergo a comprehensive assessment during the agency's intake process. Based on the results of that assessment, the nature of the offense, and any aggravating or mitigating factors, an expected release date is established. NCYL will be looking for any variations along racial lines in assessment scores and length-of-stay projections. NCYL will also determine whether placement in the three options available to DYS -- secure residential facilities, specialized treatment facilities, and community placement -- varies by race. If racial disparities are found, policies and practices will be reviewed to determine their cause.
Finally, NCYL will be providing guidance to three counties in Arkansas – Pulaski, Jefferson, and Crittenden – tasked with reducing Disproportionate Minority Contact (DMC) with the juvenile justice system. As part of this effort, NCYL will work with the DMC Subcommittee of the Arkansas State Advisory Group, which oversees implementation of the statewide DMC reduction plan. NCYL will begin by gathering available data on the three counties. Each has completed an analysis required by the US Department of Justice as a condition for receiving federal funding. The analysis, called a relative rate index, confirms that racial disparities exist in all three counties. The next step involves analyzing the data to determine if the cause or causes of the disparities can be identified.