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Last year, juveniles in Arkansas committed more than 450 felonies and misdemeanors.
According to the nonprofit research group The Sentencing Project, Arkansas has one of the highest rates of incarcerated youth in the country. But in Northwest Arkansas, courts and nonprofits are working to keep kids from ending up behind bars.
"It was actually my sister's twelfth birthday," said 14-year-old Ulices Rueda of the day his father was arrested. Rueda was three years old and his father was arrested on a felony drug charges.
"I can't remember much but I can remember my sister crying," Rueda explained. His dad was found guilty, leaving Rueda to grow up without a father.
"He did make that one mistake, it didn't only affect him but it affected our family," Rueda said.
Dr. Michael Flowers is the director of clinical services at Youth Bridge, a nonprofit that provides support for troubled kids. Flowers said Rueda is just one example of a much bigger problem.
"Our state consistently ranks near the bottom of child well-being, when it comes to adverse childhood experiences," Flowers explained.
In fact, according to data from the National Survey of Children's Health, 56 percent of Arkansas kids have lived through an adverse childhood experience like witnessing violence in their home or community, living with someone with a substance abuse problem or, like Rueda, having a parent or guardian spend time in jail.
Flowers said many of these kids will have run-ins with the law themselves.
"Kids do not belong in cages, period, and I think we should catch it at the beginning than at the point where we're having to lock them up," Flowers said.
Rueda started going down the wrong path in middle school, but he was given the option to attend an alternative school rather than go through the juvenile justice system.
"The belief is that if we can find a way to reintegrate a juvenile into society, society is ultimately better off," said Nathan Smith, prosecuting attorney for Benton County.
Smith said his office handles about a thousand juvenile cases every year. The focus is now on diverting kids away from detention.
"Most of the mechanisms involved in juvenile court involve counseling, treatment and things that put a whole lot of hoops before a juvenile is incarcerated anywhere," Smith explained.
Going to an alternative school turned Rueda around.
"I saw all these kids that were, they didn't have their parents too, but then they were already going towards the path my dad was in...and I kind of put that switch in my head," Rueda explained. "I can't do this."
"If we intensely focus on those children, we don't have to...have as many adults in prisons, we can take care of it at the beginning, it's almost a no brainer," Flowers said.
But diversion programs don't always work and many kids end up in places like the Benton County Juvenile Detention Center. Denyse Collins is the director of the Benton County JDC. She says while in the facility, kids go to school, play sports with the staff and get the support they need.
"There's always a program or a service going on, NA, AA, Celebrate Recovery, churches coming in on the weekends, providing home cooked meals, mentoring," Collins explained.
Collins hopes when kids leave JDC, it's for good. But that often isn't the case.
"Unfortunately, there are a lot of kids that do come back for whatever reason," Collins said.
She said she tries to make as much of a positive impact as she can.
"You never know three years, five years, ten years down the line, exactly what sticks and what doesn't so I mean that's important," Collins said.
Rueda credits his support system for keeping him out of the system and getting him back on track.
"If you're not doing it for yourself, do it for the person that most cares about you," Rueda said.
He now works with the Youth Matters program in Benton County to help at-risk teens.
By Deni Kamper
25 July 2018