Nevada-based company taking over 4 youth lockups in Arkansas

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — A Nevada-based company took over all four Arkansas youth lockups as the state enters the second phase of overhauling its long-troubled juvenile justice system, which Gov. Hutchinson said he hopes can help keep more troubled children stay closer to home.

Rite of Passage on Wednesday assumed control of day-to-day operations of facilities in Dermott, Harrisburg and Mansfield after legislators approved a $70 million contract last year that ends in 2023, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported. Rite of Passage had already been managing the Arkansas Juvenile Assessment and Treatment Center in Alexander since 2016.

Hutchinson noted in an email that heightened focus on community services has long been his objective.

“My priority has been to reduce the number housed in faraway facilities and to put the savings in community-based services,” he wrote. “I am excited this goal is becoming closer to reality.”

The latest move is part of a juvenile justice overhaul that Hutchinson announced in 2018. The first phase prioritized upgrading residential facilities and lowering the number of youths in lockups. Arkansas closed youth facilities in Colt, Lewisville and Dermott, which previously had two facilities.

“When we closed down Dermott, the very first request was for us to take the funds that were utilized and move them into community-based providers,” said Keesa Smith, the Arkansas Department of Human Services’ deputy director for children, youth and families, speaking of meetings with stakeholders.

Arkansas plans to allocate more funding to community-based services, hoping it will ease youth offenders’ transitions from lockups, officials said.

In three years, the state has slashed the number of juveniles in lockups by roughly 45%, from 327 in July 2017 to 179 as of Tuesday.

New funding has been put toward diversion and reentry programs, increasing from $19.3 million to $21.43 million.

Michael Crump, the state’s youth services director, said funds under Phase 2 will be allocated based on the number of children in an area and the rate of poverty.

From 2003 to 2012 , the state’s juvenile detention centers were under federal supervision after authorities found civil rights violations, child abuse, neglect, dangerous living conditions, and insufficient educational and mental-health services. Watchdog groups have distributed reports and letters, as recently as 2017, which illustrate some of those conditions continue.

Arkansas youth detention facilities currently house more than 200 children who have committed juvenile felonies, misdemeanors and other infractions. Rite of Passage’s facilities will have the capacity to house 230 children in residential beds and 20 in assessment beds.