- Adjudication and Sentencing — Arkansas Eliminates Mandatory Sentence of Life without Parole for Youth Convicted of Capital Murder
Pursuant to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Miller v. Alabama, Arkansas passed legislation that eliminates mandatory life without parole sentences for youth convicted of capital murder for offenses committed prior to the age of 18. The new law allows instead a sentence of life imprisonment with the possibility of parole after 28 years. Prior to this revision, any youth convicted of capital murder received a mandatory sentence of life without parole. The law is not retroactive. H.B. 1993/Act No. 1490, signed into law and effective April 22, 2013.
- Sexual Exploitation of Youth — Arkansas Moves to Decriminalize Youth Victims of Sex Trafficking
Finding that “the criminal justice system is not the appropriate place for sexually exploited children because it serves to retraumatize them and increase their feelings of low self-esteem,” the Arkansas Legislature passed the “Safe Harbor Victims Act” to help protect children who are victims of sex trafficking. The law mandates an interim study on child sex trafficking and creates a fund to help pay for services and treatment for youth who are trafficked. Additionally, the law requires the state Department of Human Services to develop a statewide protocol for the delivery of services to sexually exploited children and encourages training of law enforcement and prosecutors in how to identify and provide services for sexually exploited children. S.B. 869/Act No.1267, signed into law April 16, 2013; effective August 16, 2013.
- Alternatives to Detention and Youth Prisons — One-Cent Sales Tax Provides an Additional $3 Million for Community-Based Youth Programming in Little Rock: On September 6, 2011, the city of Little Rock passed a one-cent sales tax increase that included, in the public safety section of the proposal, $3 million in additional revenue for prevention, intervention and treatment (PIT) programs to reduce juvenile crime. This brings the city’s annual investment in after-school and summer programs, gang intervention, youth development programs, and other treatment programs to $6 million a year. The funded programs are targeted to areas of the city with the highest concentration of at-risk youth and families. Many are operated under the auspices of local churches or non-profits with a long history of service to those neighborhoods. Funds are set aside to help build organizational capacity, program quality, and accountability. These programs have been part of the city’s annual budget for over 17 years, and have widespread support among voters because of their success at reducing youth crime. Special attention was given during the recent tax campaign to providing more job training and support for those coming out of correctional programs.
- Facility Closures and Downsizing — State Reduces Incarceration of Youth: Between 2008 and 2011, overall commitments of youth to state custody in Arkansas dropped by 20 percent; commitments for misdemeanor-level behavior were reduced by 24 percent. Over the same period, the average length of stay in state treatment centers was shortened, dropping from 216 days in FY 2008 to 175 days in FY 2011. Additionally, the number of beds at the state’s largest juvenile secure facility, the Arkansas Juvenile Assessment and Treatment Center, were reduced from 143 to 100. Lastly, the number of youth committed to the juvenile justice system who are also the responsibility of the state’s child welfare system—“dual-jurisdiction” youth—has been significantly reduced, down from 62 youth in FY 2009 to only 16 in FY 2011. These changes stem from the work of a 50-member task force made up of stakeholders, agency officials, and reform advocates, which developed a comprehensive plan for reform of Arkansas’ juvenile justice system.
- Organizational and Large-Scale Change — Juvenile Court Fees to Be Used for Youth Programs: Under a new law, the fees collected from participants in juvenile court are now used to fund and support youth and court programs. The law provides that the funds in each county may be used to support juvenile drug courts, teen courts, volunteer probation programs, court-appointed special advocates, and after-school and community-based programs. Prior to the law, only limited types of funds collected could be spent on juvenile court programs. The new law broadens the categories of fees that can be used to support youth programs and clarifies which types of juvenile court programs may be supported by the fees. The change stemmed from a need for more funding for juvenile drug courts and after-school programs for youth. H.B. 1812/Act 1175, signed into law April 4, 2011; effective July 27, 2011.
- Conditions of Confinement — State Requires Detailed Treatment Plans for Committed Youth: The Arkansas Division of Youth Services must now file with the court a treatment plan for all committed youth no later than 30 days from the commitment order or before the youth’s release, whichever is sooner. Treatment plans must detail the type of programs and services to be provided to the youth; state the anticipated length of commitment; include recommendations as to the most appropriate post-commitment placement for the youth; detail any post-commitment community-based services that will be offered to the youth and his or her family; and outline an aftercare plan. S.B. 776/Act 956, signed into law and effective April 6, 2009.
- Conditions of Confinement — Legislature Mandates New Education System for Youth Residential Facilities: Finding the current education program of the Arkansas Division of Youth Services (DYS) “lacking,” the General Assembly passed a law that requires the Arkansas Department of Education to establish guidelines for and monitor DYS’ education system for youth in its residential facilities. The law requires that students enrolled in the DYS education system receive transferable credits and mandates that all teachers within the DYS education system be appropriately licensed and compensated. The legislation—finding changes to be immediately necessary so that youth housed in DYS facilities receive “a suitable education”—includes an emergency clause making the law effective upon final approval from the governor. H.B. 1932/Act 972, signed into law and effective April 6, 2009.
- Interrogations and Confessions — State Codifies Factors Used to Determine Whether a Youth’s Confession Is Voluntary: The Arkansas General Assembly codified factors for the court to consider when determining if a youth’s confession was made voluntarily, knowingly, and intelligently. The factors include the youth’s maturity, whether the confession was coerced, whether a parent or guardian who agreed to the youth’s interrogation had an interest adverse to the youth, and whether the confession was audio- or video-recorded. Additionally, with regard to a determination of whether a youth voluntarily waived counsel, the statute specifically requires the court to consider whether the waiver was recorded in audio or video format. The law will provide juvenile defenders with concrete tools to fight improperly obtained confessions and waivers. S.B. 788/Act 759, signed into law April 1, 2009; effective July 31, 2009.