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 fourth story in the series.

Local juvenile justice officials spend hours each each week evaluating teens accused of crimes to ensure Faulkner County youth receive the proper services to prevent recidivism.

The many hours spent interviewing at-risk youth and their families over the past four years has proven successes in the number of cases filed as well as number of area youth jailed across the 20th Judicial District, which includes Faulkner, Searcy and Van Buren counties.

The programs and systems placed in Faulkner County are now required by state law with the passing of Act 152.

The structured assessments are lengthy — they can take up to three hours to complete and involve both the offender and a parent or guardian.

While Circuit Judge Troy B. Braswell Jr. was initially mocked for initiating this program, Faulkner County officials have seen a 57% reduction in the number of teens held behind bars since the risk-assessment program was implemented.

Braswell hoped to fight alongside at least 10% of families who found themselves weaving through the juvenile court system. To his surprise, as well as the district’s current chief of staff, Leeanna Brown, families have been honest and forthcoming, the two have told the Log Cabin Democrat.

The system goes beyond simply “not locking kids up,” but focuses on creating a foundation of resources at-risk youth can turn to in order to gain skills that will last them a lifetime, Braswell said.

When the news of the structured assessment program broke prior to its 2015 implementation, judges across the state asked Braswell if he truly believed families would be honest with him.

When asked how many families he felt would be truthful in their responses to the structured assessment of violence risk in youth (SAVRY) questionnaires, Braswell said he hoped, at the time, that he could genuinely reach 10% of the families finding their way into the juvenile justice system.

Even looking toward a small percentage, Braswell said he felt the push was worth it. With then-Chief of Staff Faye Shepherd at his side, the two pushed to start the program.

“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. That’s because Faye Shepherd, when she was my chief of staff, helped me convince the staff and our officers that this is going to work and we’ve got to do it.”

It was not an easy adjustment for those working within the 20th Judicial District’s juvenile division.

Brown, who was working in Van Buren County at the time, said she found the switch overwhelming at first.

Caseloads were high, and the new requirement of conducting a three-hour screening for all accused juveniles seemed daunting, she said. However, as she became more familiar with the program and conducted more and more assessments, Brown said she began to notice the difference the assessment program had to offer.

Through implementing the assessment program, Braswell said recidivism rates are dropping. The assessment program separates low-risk, moderate-risk and high-risk teens that find themselves in the juvenile court system.

The services and requirements rendered for each range is different, allowing officials to spend more time with moderate- and high-risk teens.

“Our juvenile officers’ caseloads were through the roof,” Braswell said. “Now, we’re able to focus more on the cases that need the most attention.”

Since the risk assessment program was implemented, the number of juvenile cases filed has dropped by 35%.

During SAVRY assessments, juvenile justice officials learn a lot about possible contributing factors to the individuals underlying charges.

Braswell recently shared with Rotary Club members a story of a local family who struggled with a teen they obtained custody over.

The boy’s biological mother was in-and-out of jail on drug charges and had very little contact with her son since he was 3 years old, Braswell said.

“Before they were awarded custody, they knew there was violence and abuse in the home because they often found bruising on the juvenile,” he said.

The boy was sent to an alternative learning school when he reached the sixth grade because he was “so disruptive” in class. He often got in trouble at home.

“He’s lost all privileges at home and has alienated all friends he had in the neighborhood because he’s constantly in trouble,” Braswell said. “He gets in trouble at school because he starts play fighting with someone and takes it too far and it becomes a real fight.”

Regarding an unrelated case, a young teen was in trouble for using a sledgehammer to bust his ankle monitor off and allegedly stole a family member’s car.

Officials learned his mother was a drug dealer and was addicted to cocaine during their assessments.

“He said she hit him many times,” Braswell said.

“We know that because our officers are sitting down and taking time to ask questions,” he said. “Maybe that’s only 10% true. I don’t know. If that doesn’t break your heart, I don’t know what will.”

There are cases that involve students who aren’t paying attention in school, who are skipping school, and who are kicked out of school for various reasons.

During the SAVRY questionnaires, officials interview the offender and a parent or guardian separately.

First, the assessor will talk with the parent or guardian. The assessment is detailed and covers everything from learning what the teen’s hobbies are, what their behavior at home is like, learning how many individuals live in the home and other factors.

The offender is questioned next. During these assessments, Brown said officials learn a lot about an offender’s background and family life.

Sometimes, it can change the direction a case is headed, because officials learn what types of services would best suit each individual by learning what their triggers are.

One teen in Van Buren County was facing time in the Division of Youth Services earlier this year. Following his risk assessment, he instead was given a second change to receive services tailored to his needs.

“It’s one thing to say we don’t believe in locking kids up is the first step, but we also have to remember that balancing community safety is a very important piece of this puzzle,” Braswell said. “Regardless of how bad we want to help, how bad we want to support these kids coming from these awful environments, you sill need to be able to go to the grocery store and not be worried about getting robbed.”

While local officials work to better the lives of area youth through community programs, some are still jailed. During the most recent fiscal year, seven teens were sentenced to serve time in DYS. This number is down from Braswell’s first year serving as the juvenile circuit judge.

“My first year on the bench, [that number] was 21,” he said.