In the past six years, much has changed in the way we treat young people in state custody, and I’d like to talk about the ways we have reformed juvenile justice.
After I was elected and before I took office, I made a surprise visit to the Alexander Juvenile Treatment Center to make it clear that I intended to protect the youth in the custody of our state. In 2016, after continued reports of violence and poor management of the system, the state took over operation of Arkansas’s seven youth treatment centers.
In January of 2018, I made another surprise visit to the treatment center in Dermott. I wanted to remind leaders once again that I am serious about the way we treat our youthful offenders.
In 2019, with the support of legislation by the 92nd General Assembly, we improved the system dramatically. In fact, the Division of Youth Services reported this week that the number of youth commitments to state custody has decreased from 534 down to 297, a 44 percent drop.
In my administration, we have stressed the need to provide educational opportunities for our children and teens who are in the detention system. Our system is meant to rehabilitate young people, not to punish them.
For our youth to successfully reenter society, they need to continue their education, learn social skills, and learn about trades and careers. We want to give them every opportunity to escape the cycle of violence, abuse, and incarceration that many of them have known throughout their young life.
To ensure that we are giving them the best chance we can, we assess each youth and base the treatment program on the needs we discover in the assessment. This will highlight for the judge and the probation officers the issues that led the youth to this point in life and reduce the risk that he or she will re-offend.
At the end of 2020, Judge Wiley Branton Jr., a juvenile court judge, retired after twenty-seven years on the bench.
In an interview with the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette upon his retirement, he said that juvenile judges “have the responsibility of fixing broken people ... fixing families that have issues … trying to turn (young people) around into constructive citizens.”
Judge Branton’s motto was “there are no throwaway people.”
Judge Tjuana Byrd, who was elected last year, is one month into her career as a juvenile judge. Her words echo Judge Branton’s philosophy and fit with the approach my administration has pursued in reforming juvenile justice. She says that diverting a first-time nonviolent offender sometimes is better than court and detention. She said, “Sometimes a kiddo doesn’t need to see a judge at all. Sometimes they just need redirection. … When they do come before the court, we have tools that help us decide what services are actually best for the children and their families. … When a child comes into the system, it might be the last chance to get a kid and the family on the right track.”
Judge Branton, Judge Byrd, and a host of other judges such as Troy Braswell, have contributed to the reform of our juvenile justice system. These judges and the experts in the Division of Youth Services have the wisdom and compassion to pursue the best course for our youth who are in trouble. Their work offers our youth a chance at a better life.