by Max Brantley
Why is Arkansas apparently moving backwards when many of its peers, including several deep red Southern states, have turned a corner by embracing more humane and proven approaches to juvenile justice?The providers of services have stifled efforts at changes — unapologetically, the story makes clear. But the story also notes some new efforts at improvements, sure to bring out the providers' lobbyists in the 2017 legislative session.
The problem, experts and advocates told me, stems largely from the outsized influence of Arkansas’ unique network of service providers.
These agencies are not the scandal-plagued for-profit prison corporations often (and rightfully) pilloried in the press. Rather, they are nonprofit, community-based and widely respected, with a long history of caring for troubled children.
Most were created in the 1970s after passage of the Runaway Youth Act made federal funds available for programs to assist wayward youth. Initially, the organizations struggled, but by the late 1970s and early ‘80s they began to figure out how to band together and expand their influence. The providers put politically connected leaders on their boards and branched out to serve youth in the delinquency system. After forming the Arkansas Youth Service Providers Association, they negotiated standard contracts with the Division of Youth Services (DYS) to pay them for community-based services, and some opened residential facilities as well. Rather than fight each other for funding, the 13 providers agreed to carve the state into pieces, and each became the sole recipient of DYS contracts in its given territory.