LITTLE ROCK – Two weeks ago, I announced the details of our plan to reform the state’s juvenile justice system. The most obvious change is the decision to close two of our youth treatment centers.
The reform of our juvenile justice system has been a priority of my administration since day one. A few weeks before my inauguration as the 46th governor of Arkansas, I made a surprise visit to the Alexander Juvenile Treatment Center to make it clear that I intended to protect the youth in the custody of our state.
And then in 2016, after continued reports of violence and poor management of the system, the state took over operation of Arkansas’s seven youth treatment centers.
In January, I made another surprise visit to the treatment center at Dermott. I wanted to see the operation first-hand, and I wanted to remind our leaders that I am serious about the way we treat our youthful offenders.
Over the past four years, we have fixed problems that needed immediate attention. During this time, the leaders of the Department of Human Services and the Administrative Office of the Courts have critiqued the system and consulted experts outside state government.
Now we have released the details of our big-picture plan, which we will implement over the next six months and then fully implement next summer. This plan accelerates the transformation of the juvenile justice system and will better equip the system to meet the needs of youth in our care, their families, and the judicial system.
The goal of our plan is to strengthen the system and to reduce the number of those who are housed in locked facilities. As often as is possible and safe, we want to return youthful offenders to community-based treatment that will involve their families and local supervision.
In the upcoming general assembly, I will ask legislators to pass mandatory risk assessment to ensure juveniles receive the appropriate level of guidance and assistance. One circuit judge who requires the assessment process for every offender in his court saw 47 percent fewer detentions between 2015 and 2017. Offenders spent less time in jail, and the number of repeat offenders dropped by 33 percent.
We will close the treatment center at Dermott and Colt, and we are preparing the requests for bids from firms that operate juvenile treatment centers. Our goal is to return the centers to private operation at the start of the new fiscal year in July 2019. We will require quarterly reviews of treatment for each offender.
I want to thank the legislators who are members of the Juvenile Justice Reform Board, the Administrative Office of the Courts, and some of our juvenile court judges who have been invaluable partners in developing proposals for reform.
While punishment is a necessary part of the justice system, the more significant element is the rehabilitation of our youth. We need to give them the attention and teach the skills that will give them the best hope of escaping the cycle of violence, abuse, and incarceration that many of them have known throughout their young life.
These reforms are costly, but we can’t afford the cost of failing to reform our system of juvenile justice. The return on that investment is the lives we salvage because we truly rose to the challenge.