The Arkansas Senate approved sweeping changes to the state juvenile justice system, embodied in legislation sponsored by Senator Missy Irvin of Mountain View and other legislators.

Senate Bill 152, commonly called the “Restoring Arkansas Families Act,” will bring in fundamental changes in how juveniles are placed and treated when they get in trouble with the law. One goal of the act is to significantly lower the number of teens who are sent to secure detention facilities, while increasing the availability of community treatment.

“Juvenile lock-ups cost more to operate, and throughout the years they have consistently been the source of severe problems,” Irvin said. “For example, the state has been under federal court jurisdiction because of failures by juvenile lock-ups to maintain grade level education.”

“Secure detention should be reserved for those juveniles who are a true threat to society. They shouldn’t be a first resort, where we send kids who get in trouble for misdemeanor offenses.”

SB152 would require all juvenile judges in the state to use an assessment method, based on evidence, before they place juvenile offenders. Judges could not send a juvenile to a lock-up for a misdemeanor unless the judge specifically determines that the youth is a moderate to high risk case.

“A huge benefit of this legislation is that it will impose uniform standards across the state for every juvenile,” Irvin said. “Right now, there are areas of the state where a teenager gets locked up for behavior that in other parts of the state only merits community intervention.”

SB 152 raises the bar not only for juvenile judges but also for the state Division of Youth Services (DYS), which operates juvenile detention facilities, administers community programs and intervenes in court when juveniles get in trouble. The bill requires DYS to monitor all juvenile cases to ensure they are being handled according to new risk assessment methods. DYS must develop individual plans for youths in trouble, based on the evidence, and the plans must involve families.

Already, juvenile judges in 19 of the 75 counties in Arkansas rely on validated risk assessments when they rule on a juvenile’s placement. Expanding the use of the assessments will coincide with a decreased reliance on lock-ups. The state has announced the closing of two secure facilities, in St. Francis and in Chicot Counties.

Although SB 152 would implement widespread changes in how Arkansas treats and sentences juvenile offenders, Irvin is confident that the legislature will approve it.

“This bill represents the hard work of all the stakeholders involved: the judges and the courts, public defenders and prosecutors, advocates for juveniles and experts in adolescent development, the staff who work with adjudicated teenagers and their families,” Irvin said.

“All those groups have been working on the specifics of this bill for two years. They’ve shared ideas, debated the effectiveness of different approaches, and drank a lot of coffee,” Irvin said.

“They didn’t always agree on the methods, but there was whole-hearted agreement on the outcomes we are all hoping for, which is to stop putting obstacles in front of kids who get in trouble with the law,” Irvin said. “Too many lives were wasted because we threw away their opportunities.”

The Senate approved the measure and sent it to the House of Representatives on February 7.