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 through Act 152 and other related juvenile justice reform topics. This is the seventh story in the series.

Risk assessment tools used in the juvenile justice reform movement have proven successful in Faulkner County and across the state. However, implementing these procedures is a small step to complete the large-scale, 20-year plan.

The local reform movement was inspired by a project hosted by the MacArthur Foundation and the University of Massachusetts Medical School. One parish in Louisiana participated and a Pennsylvania county was also included in the Risk Assessment and Behavioral Health Screening (RABS) Project in 2011.

Per the project, the Louisiana group participated in a structured assessment of violence risk in youth (SAVRY), which is the current questionnaire process used in Faulkner County and across the state.

When the opportunity to apply for a grant through the MacArthur Foundation to implement a similar-type pilot program arose in 2015, Arkansas Supreme Court Justice Rhonda K. Wood and other members of the Commission on Children, Youth and Families did not hesitate to apply. However, Arkansas set itself aside from other candidates and has seen much success since it was awarded the $2-million grant to jump start this new initiative.

Arkansas officials did not want to focus on a single county, but instead pilot the justice reform movement in four counties with a plan to branch out statewide, Wood said.

Faulkner County, while proving through the years to be most successful implementing the movement, was not a part of the initial pilot-county list.

The plan was to first implement conducting SAVRY assessments in Craighead, Crittenden, Pulaski and Saline counties. However, Justice Wood said the plan to include Saline County did not work, and the offer to participate was extended to Faulkner County officials.

“Faulkner has been by far the most successful,” Wood told the Log Cabin Democrat, adding that in 2015, the county had “a perfect scenario” to implement the program smoothly.

Judge Troy Braswell Jr. had just taken office, which made the transitional process easier than for judges who had been on the bench for 30 years, Wood said.

Pulaski County Wiley A. Branton has sat as a juvenile judge for 26 years. In the years he’s served Pulaski County juveniles, he has admitted to Justice Wood that he has seen a difference in his courtroom since implementing the SAVRY assessments.

“It’s amazing when he says, ‘I had someone with that exact background and sent them to [the Division of Youth Services] and after the SAVRY, [was conducted] it’s recommended [the juvenile gets] no detention time. It’s night and day, and it works,’” Wood said of a previous conversation with the Pulaski County judge.

Since joining the reform movement, Faulkner County has witnessed a 57% reduction in juvenile detention numbers:

In 2015, 495 juveniles were placed behind bars. In 2016, 380 were detained in the county jail. In 2017, 262 juveniles were held in the Faulkner County Detention Center. In 2018, juvenile detainee numbers dropped to 212.

The programs instated in Faulkner County go beyond “not locking kids up,” but instead instill a foundation of resources at-risk youth can turn to and gain useful skills to last them a lifetime, Braswell has said.

The juvenile judge said he “jumped on the opportunity to participate” in the pilot program back in 2015 “because we could not afford to conduct business as usual.”

“We owe it to this community to fight for kids and families,” he said Saturday. “I am honored that our court and our community serve as a model for the rest of the state. We must continue to find new ways to make a difference.”

As the years go by, Braswell said he and other officials have noticed change that is making a difference in the lives of the individuals who find themselves within the court system.

“The last review conducted by the developers of the assessment tool showed a reduction of recidivism by 30%. These are more than numbers. They are real lives being changed,” he said, adding that Faulkner County would not be the success story it is without help from community partners such as Deliver Hope.

Each of Arkansas’ 75 counties will be trained to conduct SAVRY assessments by spring 2020. Once the pilot counties were up and running and collecting data, Wood said the expansion phase began.

The process does not stop there. Even after juvenile probation officers have undergone training, Wood said they will receive “quality assessments” to ensure everything is running as it should.

With Act 152 being signed in as law earlier this year, the movement to train JPOs across the state began moving quickly. Act 152 focuses on improving the lives of young offenders by utilizing “validated risk assessment tools” and providing a variety of options tailored to each juvenile’s specific needs.

Mandating these procedures through state law was not planned, Wood said. However, she said she realized it would be necessary to establish a consistent program across the state.

Implementing SAVRY procedures across the state is a small part of the overall plan, Wood said.

“People get too distracted with the SAVRYs and the RABS,” she said. “This is really our big plan ... a 20-year plan. SAVRYs are the first step.”

With Step One (SAVRY implementation) well underway, Wood said officials are already working on Step Two as well.

Step Two focuses on adopting and implementing programs and services that reduce recidivism and improves the lives of at-risk youth. This means juvenile officers are conducting the SAVRY assessments prior to an offender participating in any court-mandated programs, and then conducting the same questionnaire afterward to make sure the program has impacted the child in a positive way.

Step Three “is the hardest step,” Wood said.

During this process, officials will work toward coordinating cases for children who have multiple cases to include delinquency cases, child welfare cases, dependency/neglect cases and educational matters.

It’s important to find a way to make this possible, Wood said, because at times, a juvenile in the system is working their programs and doing well “but then could be adopted or end up in foster care and end up in another county.” This makes it difficult for the court system and education facilities to keep up with collaborating programs for the child’s specific needs.

Luckily, with help from Arkansas Department of Education Commissioner Johnny Key, officials have developed an agreement plan for parents to either approve or disapprove upon their child’s intake.

Should the parent opt-in, the form allows an open-communication between the court and child’s school officials in an effort to better serve the individuals unique, specific needs, Wood said.

From there, Step Four will focus on further tailoring policies, programs and at-risk youth’s supervision in reflection of their distinct, developmental needs.

Looking back at the progress already made across the state, Wood said she was impressed. She also admitted she “did not think [the process] would be this lengthy.”

Wood said she was impressed by judges’ drive to participate and help train one another.

“I did not anticipate that the judges would fight to be the next [county] in line. I really didn’t,” she said. “Judges don’t like change. We are reluctant.”

As the pilot programs took off, Wood told the Log Cabin she thought officials would have difficulty convincing other counties to jump on board because “it’s such a huge investment and such a change for their staff.”

“They were clamoring for it,” she said. “Other judges were literally arguing over who got to go next.”

Heading into her 14th year on the bench, Wood said she has never seen anything like the enthusiasm Arkansas judges and their juvenile probation officers have shown through this transition.

Staff writer Marisa Hicks can be reached at mhicks@thecabin.net.