Child advocate objects to report on juvenile justice in Arkansas | Arkansas Blog

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Child advocate objects to report on juvenile justice in Arkansas

Posted By on Wed, Aug 10, 2016 at 7:45 AM

PAUL KELLY: Seeks to add to record on his comments about juvenile justice system in Arkansas.
  • PAUL KELLY: Seeks to add to record on his comments about juvenile justice system in Arkansas.
A postscript on a report I mentioned yesterday about impediments to changes in the juvenile justice system in Arkansas. An advocate for children objects  that some remarks he made indicating movement toward improvements in the system weren't included in the article.

Writing in the Marshall Project, which is dedicated to reporting on the justice system, Dick Mendel described how nonprofit Arkansas providers of services for troubled youths — though viewed as reliable operators — had resisted changes in the system as they operated under an essentially monopoly system of dividing the state into exclusive service areas. They were described as resisting some elements of the national trend to reduce confinement of youths, particularly those accused of status offenses. The article quoted Paul Kelly of Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families as depicting the members of the Arkansas Youth Service Providers Association as obstacles to reform. I should have mentioned originally that a longer version was commissioend by the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange, which provided a shorter version to the Marshall Project.

Kelly is vacationing, I learned when I tried to reach him yesterday, but he has responded sharply to the article in a letter sent to members of the providers association. He wrote that some positive things he'd said weren't included in the article. I gather from other checking that Kelly believes the winds of change are blowing in Arkansas (the Marshall Project article indicated as much) and that the providers are receptive to be a part of that change. There's fear, I gathered, that backlash to the article could stymie progress in the 2017 legislature. It's hard for me to say if such fear is justified. Doing right should be its own reward. Nonetheless, here's what Kelly wrote, in an e-mail provided to me by one of the providers that received it:

Dear friends and partners:

I was recently interviewed for an article by the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange on the state of the juvenile justice system in Arkansas. I had major concerns with how the interview was conducted, and when the article first appeared online, I noticed that many of my quotes were taken out of context.

While I did make the comments that appeared in the story, I also said many more positive things about our growing, strengthening relationships with providers that were not included. We were not able to review the story ahead of time, so I wasn’t aware that the full scope of my interview was not being presented. I tried to give a comprehensive, historical account, and I realize in hindsight that this was a mistake.

As valued partners in the juvenile justice community, I wanted to make you aware of the national story. In addition to the full story, there is a shorter version on The Marshall Project website; an Arkansas Times blog post released today that links to this shorter version; and a pending story to run in the Sunday, August 14 edition of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

My reaction when I first read the article and a more detailed explanation of my concerns appears below. I apologize for the way this entire situation has transpired, and it is our sincere hope as an organization, and my hope as an individual, that we can continue to work with providers to improve the juvenile justice system in Arkansas to better serve all of our children.

I’m currently out of town, but I am available on my cell phone at the number listed below if you would like to speak to me.

Paul D. Kelly

To whom it may concern:

I want to voice my strong objection to the selected use of quotes attributed to me by Dick Mendel in his recent article “Analysis: What’s the Matter With Arkansas” published on the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange website. The article presents his analysis of past and current attempts to reform the juvenile justice system in Arkansas. I was not able to review the article prior to its publication.

I cannot deny the accuracy of the quotes attributed to me. However, Mr. Mendel failed to provide the context in which several statements were made. He asked me to give him a perspective of past barriers to juvenile justice reform, and that was the context of my comments about providers that he included in the article.

He also did not give the full scope of what I said during our several talks. I told him about ongoing collaboration for meaningful reform and the positive participation of providers. I emphasized that it was important for him to explain that no single party has been to blame for the lack of progress on juvenile justice reform. His reply was that that way of telling the story was “too nuanced.”

Mr. Mendel chose instead to wrongfully single out Arkansas youth service providers as the sole reason for problems and the state’s failure to make progress.

During interviews, I had defended service providers, their passion for their work and the many barriers they faced with judges, administration, and legislators. In particular, I dispelled the notion that service providers were resistant to recommendations championed by the Governor’s Youth Justice Reform Board; in fact, they are fully on board with proposed changes.

I sincerely regret my part in creating this unfortunate characterization of Arkansas. I certainly share Mr. Mendel’s frustration with the lack of progress with youth justice reform in Arkansas, but he did not fairly depict the work being done now and the providers’ engagement and critical role in positive change.

I think you could form the opinion that Kelly's note to the providers gives some indication of how powerful that group is considered to be. 

Here, by the way, is the fuller version of the account I mentioned yesterday. It offered this summary of Mendel's conclusions on Arkansas falling behind the curve on juvenile justice system changes, despite some earlier positive movement.

First, Arkansas’ backsliding on juvenile justice wasn’t inevitable: In fact, the state really was making impressive strides toward reform for several years.

This reform movement ran aground in 2013, thwarted by an idiosyncratic feature of Arkansas’ system — a politically powerful cabal of nonprofit service providers that has acquired monopoly over juvenile services statewide.

This cabal has also helped perpetuate two signature weaknesses in the state’s juvenile system — a striking dearth of data collection and analysis, and an ongoing leadership gap at the state’s juvenile corrections agency.

Despite these deep and continuing problems, momentum toward reform is once again mounting in Arkansas — much of it coming from the bottom up.

As best as I can tell, the irresistible logic of reform and the good will of hardworking leaders in the state — especially judges — are likely to begin winning the day sometime in the not too distant future.
More to come, I expect. I've asked the author to respond, but I should also add that it is a rare news source who thinks his or her comments have been quoted as fully as the news source might wish. Same as a reporter whose editor slices and dices his work.

UPDATE: Add to the discussion comments from Madelyn Keith, director of East Arkansas Youth Services in Marion, one of the providers at issue. She takes exception to the notion of the clout of agencies such as hers.

For the six Delta counties that my agency contracts with for DYS services the total funding amount is $752,482.80. That averages to be $125,413.80 per county in my service area to provide all the juvenile justice services including a residential component as an alternative to lock-up or commitment to DYS.

This is the same funding amount that it was in 2006 . This is what is wrong in Arkansas.

The reason no one applies for the Community Provider contracts when they are RFP’d is because there is no way to profit from them.

If our provider group is “so politically influential” then why is it that our DYS funding is at the same level that it was 10 years ago?

We have a great deal of community support and respect because many in our communities have benefitted from our services over the years.

Schools, the courts and others in our community know us to be efficient and effective. These people don’t have a problem calling legislators when they are told that our agency is in danger of going away.

As far as collecting data is concerned……….we collect it out of the “wahzoo” and put it into the DYS RITE TRACK Data base system and we have been for YEARS.

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