Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Arkansas breaks the curve — in wrong direction — on locking up juveniles

Posted By on Tue, Aug 16, 2016 at 12:14 PM

OUTLIER: Just about everybody other than Arkansas is reducing confinement of juveniles.
  • OUTLIER: Just about everybody other than Arkansas is reducing confinement of juveniles.

The Arkansas Blog mentioned last week  new reporting about Arkansas's failure to join the rest of the country in moving away from confinement of juveniles.

Dick Mendel's reporting put some of our poor showing down to the resistance of nonprofit providers of youth services. As you can see here, several did not respond warmly to the reporting.

The providers objected to me and also to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, which scrapped a planned version of the article. 

The reporter, Dick Mendel, writes anew about this ongoing story for the Arkansas Blog, partly to turn the focus back to where it primarily belongs. He includes new data on how far Arkansas is behind other states in juvenile confinement. This is first about effective treatment of children. But it is also about money. It costs Arkansas a significant sum to lock up kids rather than treat them in other ways.

Mendel's new story:

By Dick Mendel

Earlier this month, the online news website Juvenile Justice Information Exchange (JJIE) published a 4,000-word feature story, which I wrote, exploring the reasons behind a spate of recent news stories highlighting problems in Arkansas’ juvenile justice system.

As they sometimes do, JJIE’s editors reached out to other news outlets to see if they might also want to run the article. The Crime Report, a highly regarded website aggregating criminal justice news stories nationwide, made it their top story on Aug. 5 and over the subsequent weekend. The Marshall Project, a new online journalism experiment led by the former editor-in-chief of the New York Times, ran a shortened version of the article focused on my counterintuitive (and surprising to me) finding that many of the problems plaguing juvenile justice in Arkansas can be traced to the outsized influence of the state’s network of private, non-profit youth service provider agencies. And the Arkansas Democrat Gazette informed us that they would be publishing the shorter version in their Sunday Perspective Section on Aug. 14.

Since then, two things have happened. First, the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention released the results of its most recent state-by-state survey of juvenile confinement. Even more than the evidence cited in my original story, these new figures illustrate just how far out of the mainstream Arkansas’ juvenile justice system has veered in recent times. 

OUTLIER: Just about everybody other than Arkansas is reducing confinement of juveniles.
  • OUTLIER: Just about everybody other than Arkansas is reducing confinement of juveniles.

Virtually every other state has accepted and acted upon the lesson that, as the National Academies of Science and many others have documented, juvenile incarceration is an expensive, ineffective, and counterproductive response to delinquency, and it should be used only when a young person poses a significant threat to public safety. From coast to coast, in red states and blue, juvenile courts have dramatically curtailed their use of confinement, and most states are reinvesting a substantial share of the savings to fund promising and proven alternative programs in the community. Arkansas has made no such transition. Had Arkansas cut its confined youth population in half over this period, as other states have, it would have freed up more than $20 million per year in the state budget.


The second development has been an aggressive campaign to discredit my article by representatives of the providers. In a series of letters on the JJIE website, and in communications reprinted here on the Arkansas Blog, several providers have denounced my coverage as ill-informed, unbalanced, or inaccurate. Yet, there is much less to their criticisms than meets the eye. They rely often on straw man arguments, refuting claims I never made, or they present information in misleading ways that obscure the larger picture.

For instance, in a letter posted on Arkansas Blog, the longtime director of a service provider agency in Jonesboro, Bonnie Boon, made the dubious claim that the temporary decline in juvenile confinement achieved from 2007 to 2012 under reform-minded youth corrections director Ron Angel was due to a short-term $2.5 million funding increase for the providers using federal stimulus money. And Boon complained about Angel’s alleged failure to replace this money with state funds when the stimulus money ran out. But state budget records show that state funding for community based services increased substantially under Angel, with expenditures rising from $11 million in 2007-08 to $18 million in 2011-12 and 2012-13. Boon’s complaint seems to be that Angel directed much of the new funding to new initiatives, aiming to modernize and improve the state’s system, rather than simply increasing budgets for the providers’ longstanding operations.

Boon also defended the arrangement in which each of the state’s 13 private provider agencies receives virtually all available state funding to work with court-involved youth in its given territory, saying this division is necessary to assure that services are provided statewide. But Boon’s argument makes no sense. Many states have funding formulas to divide resources equitably by population and/or need without granting a monopoly status to individual providers within local jurisdictions.

Indeed, it was the providers’ opposition to Ron Angel’s proposal to create Community Youth Services Boards around the state to identify local needs and allocate resources – in essence to break the monopoly contracting system – that drove Angel from office and precipitated the spiral of recent negative developments which prompted my story.

Given the lack of substance to these criticisms, I was surprised and disappointed to learn last Thursday that the Arkansas Democrat Gazette had changed its mind and decided not to publish the story. The initial note from paper’s editors explained that they made their decision after hearing from service providers that it lacked balance. (Later, the editors cited the fact that Arkansas Blog had linked to and commented on the story as reason for not printing it.)

I think that’s a shame. Your state’s taxpayers, its communities, and its youth are suffering due to an ongoingly dysfunctional juvenile justice system. The more opportunity leaders and citizens have to learn about these problems, the better.

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