LITTLE ROCK — Governor Asa Hutchinson said Monday that the state will seek bids from the private sector to take over operations of seven juvenile detention centers in Arkansas.
Hutchinson said the Arkansas Department of Human Services recommended soliciting a private operator, and that bids were likely to go out in December. The winning bid is expected to be announced in March, and the facilities would be taken over in July, the governor said.
The governor in January directed the department’s Division of Youth Services to run seven of the state’s eight centers. Hutchinson made the decision when lawmakers rejected a $160 million contract with an Indiana company to replace the contracts of two other organizations that were set to end.
Yet so far this year, there have been eight incidents of juveniles leaving the state’s facilities. Two involved multiple juveniles, and one minor left two facilities at different times, according to department spokeswoman Brandi Hinkle.
At one facility in Harrisburg in northeast Arkansas, three 16-year-olds have escaped since January. All three teenagers were eventually found. Hinkle said that facility’s director was fired August 4 due to his performance.
Hinkle said there were a total of seven such incidents in 2016.
Hutchinson said all the centers will undergo an audit of their security.
“When I directed DHS to take over these juvenile treatment centers, it gave my office and the department a fresh set of eyes and an opportunity to better understand how we could improve current services,” Hutchinson said.
The Health Department has taken several steps to improve youth services since taking over the centers in January. Those include having an on-site therapist at every facility. The department has also partnered with a company to provide the standardized curriculum used by public school systems to juveniles in custody.