Arkansas Lagging on Juvenile Justice Reform

The state has not kept up with others that have dramatically lowered their rate of confining delinquent youth. Nearly half of Arkansas’ incarcerated youth are there for nonfelony offenses.

Two decades ago, Arkansas had the lowest delinquent youth confinement rate in the region and one of the lowest in the nation. Now, the most recent U.S. Justice Department data show the rate at which Arkansas locks up its youth is higher than all but one of its neighbors, Louisiana, reports the Arkansas Nonprofit News Network. In 2015, Arkansas confined 175 youths for every 100,000 in the general population. The national rate that year was 152, a number that shows the sea change in juvenile justice after confinement of youths peaked in the mid-1990s. The nation has seen a 57 percent decrease in youth confinement since 1997, when the rate was 356.

Since the ’90s, the use of confinement has dropped both in states that started out with very high rates, such as Louisiana, and those that started out as low as Arkansas, such as Oklahoma. Many states have closed down youth lockup facilities and shifted resources toward community-based alternatives, such as family therapy and substance abuse treatment. Arkansas has bucked the trend. The state Division of Youth Services operates eight secure facilities that hold over 343 youths. Nearly half of the commitments in the 2017 fiscal year were for nonfelony offenses. Pat Arthur, formerly a lawyer with the National Center for Youth Law, says, “The numbers [in Arkansas] went the wrong direction from what everybody else in the country was doing and what’s been proven to have been successful for helping youth get back on track … The low- to moderate-risk kids shouldn’t be removed from their homes or incarcerated.”