Editor’s note: The Log Cabin Democrat is taking a deeper look at Faulkner County’s juvenile court system, its successes with the risk assessment tool now mandated across the state, Act 152 on juvenile justice reform and other related topics. This is the third story in the series.
Those who work alongside juvenile offenders learn a lot about the troubles the teens face at home. Faye Shepherd worked diligently to be a voice for and find services that best suited at-risk youth.
Because of her passion to improve the lives of juveniles not only in Faulkner County, but also within the 20th Judicial District, and now across the state, Teen Court participants and local leaders moved to honor her ambitions.
Circuit Judge Troy B. Braswell said he and his staff have made a strong impact on how juvenile cases are handled. It's not about not putting juvenile offenders behind bars, but moreso about putting a deeper focus on severe cases.
"We've been working really hard," he said. "We stand on the shoulders of people before us that have worked really hard. I have seen people in this community step up and do amazing things, even kids. For some time, I've been thinking there should be a way to recognize people that have done that."
Local juvenile justice officials and the 2019 Teen Court Class opted to name this newly-created award after Shepherd.
Shepherd is currently the state's juvenile justice specialist and trains court officials statewide on how to begin implementing the risk assessment program into their local courts. Prior to this position, she served as Braswell's chief of staff.
"I am pleased to announce that the Teen Court has come up with an award to give to people in our community that have made an impact on juvenile justice," Braswell said before Conway Morning Rotary Club members Tuesday morning. "That award is called the Faye Shepherd Award for Juvenile Justice."
Overcome with tears of joy, she joined Braswell at the front of the Christian Cafeteria meeting room on the University of Central Arkansas campus.
Standing before her fellow Rotarians and colleagues, Shepherd described feeling both shocked and honored. It was not the announcement she was expecting, she said.
"I am completely delighted and loved sharing the commitment that this court has for making life better for the youth in our community," Shepherd told the Log Cabin Democrat.
Looking back on the improvements he has seen since the pilot program was implemented in Faulkner County in 2015, Braswell said he has watched the numbers of teens committed into the Division of Youth Services drop by more than 33%.
"Commitments to DYS are down," he said.
During his first year on the bench, 21 juveniles were committed to DYS, which are juvenile correctional facilities.
So far during the 2019 Fiscal Year, seven have been sent to DYS. One of those seven was re-committed following a prior offense. Two were found guilty of aggravated robbery, and another for aggravated residential burglary. One offender was sentenced to serve time in DYS after being found guilty of rape. Two of the commitments were against female offenders. The two girls were found guilty of endangering the welfare of a minor.
Other than the teen who was re-committed on a misdemeanor revocation, all were sentenced on felony-level charges. After being assessed through the structured assessment of violence risk in youth (SAVRY) questionnaires, each of the seven were considered a high risk to re-offend.
The structured assessments are lengthy -- they can take up to three hours to complete and involve both the offender and a parent or guardian.
In Faulkner County, officials have seen a 57% reduction in the number of teens held behind bars in the county jail since the risk-assessment program was implemented.
When he and Shepherd began pushing to start the program, Braswell said other Arkansas judges ridiculed the idea.
While others did not initially support the program, it has since become state law.
"When this first came out, I was mocked by other judges," Braswell admitted.
Judges across the state did not believe families would be truthful as officials would conduct their assessments.
"[I was told] families aren't going to be honest with [me]," Braswell said.
When confronted about his estimate regarding the number of families that would actually honest personal questions truthfully, Braswell said he was unsure. At the time, he guessed 10% would participate genuinely.
"Is that 10% not worth fighting for," Braswell said. "It's a difficult assessment to sit through. It takes about three hours. Change is difficult; people resist change. But, with the data we've been able to collect, they don't have a choice anymore but to change. That's because Faye Shepherd, when she was my chief of staff, helped me convince the staff and our officers that this is gong to work and we've got to do it."
Now that Act 152 is state law, courts across Arkansas will be required to implement the risk assessment program by July 2020.