LITTLE ROCK - Last year 451 Arkansas teenagers were confined in a secure facility because they got in trouble with the authorities.
The overwhelming majority, 86 percent, committed non-violent offenses, which includes truancy from school and running away from home.
The youths that were jailed last year in Arkansas ranged from age 11 to age 20, more than half were either 16 or 17 years old, and 86 percent were boys.
The juvenile detention facilities are operated by the state Division of Youth Services, which recently presented its annual report to legislators.
The Division also contracts with 13 non-profit organizations that provide services for troubled youths such as structured care after they get out of school each afternoon. Services include academic tutoring, development of job skills and therapy.
Last year more than 8,000 Arkansas youths were helped by those community service providers. There was little if any publicity about community programs. However, there is rarely a shortage of bad news about juvenile lockups, such as controversies about the use of restraints, placing youths in isolation, staffing shortages and escapes.
The Division presented its annual report to lawmakers at a meeting of the Senate Committee on Children and Youth. The chairman expressed frustration that so many youths were sent to jail for non-violent offenses.
The Division surveyed judges and probation officers to determine whether they are satisfied with the alternatives to incarceration that are available. One issue is that different areas of the state have different levels of service available.
One of the Division's goals is to shorten the average length of confinement for youths. The facilities are in Alexander, Colt, Dermott, Harrisburg, Lewisville and Mansfield. They're run by about 280 staff. The Division plans to contract with private contractors next year to operate the facilities.
The Division's administrative staff is working to hold down the cost to the state. They're exploring whether Medicaid will pay for some of the costs. Medicaid is mostly funded by the federal government and pays for health care, and the juvenile lockups provide therapy, mental health treatment and substance abuse treatment. Also, the facilities are enrolling in the National School Lunch Program, the Division staff told legislators.
Youth Services is sharing data with prison officials to track recidivism rates, so as to get a more accurate picture of what programs are working best to keep troubled youths out of the criminal justice system.
Also, the Division is working to improve education in the state's correctional facilities for juveniles. That requires standardization of curriculum, so that youths maintain their academic grade level when they are released from a lockup and return to their regular school.
Reunification with family is a priority. While the youth is confined, it's important for family to stay involved with frequent visits and participation in the youths' recovery. That may mean that parents have to modify their own behavior and confront their own history of substance abuse.
Judges told Youth Services officials that in many cases they believed the parents were the root cause of the child's delinquency.