Why Arkansas lags in juvenile justice: Money | Arkansas Blog

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Why Arkansas lags in juvenile justice: Money

Posted By on Tue, Aug 9, 2016 at 12:02 PM

The Marshall Project reports here in a portion of a larger project on why Arkansas keeps making negative news about juvenile justice.

The article references abysmal conditions at the state juvenile lockup; lockup for status offenses; Sen. Tom Cotton's blockade of juvenile justice reform; the rising number of juveniles in state custody.

The short answer boils down to money.

Why is Arkansas apparently moving backwards when many of its peers, including several deep red Southern states, have turned a corner by embracing more humane and proven approaches to juvenile justice?

The problem, experts and advocates told me, stems largely from the outsized influence of Arkansas’ unique network of service providers.

These agencies are not the scandal-plagued for-profit prison corporations often (and rightfully) pilloried in the press. Rather, they are nonprofit, community-based and widely respected, with a long history of caring for troubled children.

Most were created in the 1970s after passage of the Runaway Youth Act made federal funds available for programs to assist wayward youth. Initially, the organizations struggled, but by the late 1970s and early ‘80s they began to figure out how to band together and expand their influence. The providers put politically connected leaders on their boards and branched out to serve youth in the delinquency system. After forming the Arkansas Youth Service Providers Association, they negotiated standard contracts with the Division of Youth Services (DYS) to pay them for community-based services, and some opened residential facilities as well. Rather than fight each other for funding, the 13 providers agreed to carve the state into pieces, and each became the sole recipient of DYS contracts in its given territory.
The providers of services have stifled efforts at changes — unapologetically, the story makes clear. But the story also notes some new efforts at improvements, sure to bring out the providers' lobbyists in the 2017 legislative session.

I take exception to the author's saying that no one had accused youth service providers of corruption or bad faith. A man named Ted Suhl, who wielded outsized political influence thanks to political contributions, recently was convicted of bribery to win favors and steer business to his residential and community-based services for troubled youths. His organization also had come under fire over the years for some of its methods in the course of billing the government for $125 million.  

UPDATE: To clarify: Suhl's money came from the Medicaid end of the system for mental health treatment, as opposed to juvenile justice funding streams. His experience nonetheless illustrates the pernicious influence of money. But he is not a member of the formal Youth Service Providers Association mentioned in the Marshall Project article.

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