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State Capitol Week in Review – November 27, 2020

LITTLE ROCK – Over the past two years, few areas in state government have changed as much as the Division of Youth Services.

In November of 2018 the division began an extensive overhaul of its physical facilities, and at the same time brought in widespread changes in how it handles juveniles who get in trouble with the law.

The legislature embraced those reforms by passing Act 189 of 2019, which put into law many of the ideas that division officials were proposing.

The number of teenagers in custody has gone down significantly. Before the reforms, there were 73 juveniles in county-run lockups and 352 young people in a residential facility operated by the division. Earlier this year the division reported that only six juveniles were in county detention centers and 235 were in residential programs.

The division is placing youths in programs closer to home and has closed two detention centers, in Dermott and Colt.

Last week it was reported that another former detention center, at Lewisville, will be converted into a substance abuse treatment facility for teenagers. Judges who hear juvenile cases said that a treatment center was needed, and were glad to have an option besides locking up troubled youths.

Some juveniles need drug treatment more than they need to be in custody in a secure detention center, one judge said.

Under Act 189, juveniles are assessed under a uniform statewide system. Previously, in some areas of the state juveniles were placed in custody for relatively minor offenses. Staff are instructed to involve parents more in their child’s treatment plan.

Measuring the long-term success of the reforms will be whether or not juveniles change their course in life and avoid prison sentences as adults.

CARES Act Relief Funding

The CARES Act steering committee has recommended using $50 million in federal relief funds to hold down expected increases in rates for unemployment insurance.

The state Workforce Services Division said that doing nothing would cause 2021 tax rates for unemployment insurance to significantly increase. Businesses that would be charged with the largest increases would in many cases be the same businesses hit hardest by the pandemic, the division director said.

Rates are set based on the amounts put into a state unemployment insurance fund, and by factoring in the amount of unemployment benefits paid to laid off workers.

So far this year, there have been about $207 million charges against the fund for about 26,000 companies. Among the most affected businesses are restaurants, hotels, retail stores, hospitals, clinics and manufacturers.

The payment of benefits to laid off workers could result in rate increases of 36 percent for those businesses, the state Commerce Secretary said. He gave the example of one large business that would see its unemployment insurance costs go up from $21 to $340 per employee, if nothing is done.

The steering committee and legislators already had approved putting $165 million into the unemployment trust fund. This second round of funding would bring the amount of government relief for unemployment to $215 million.


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