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It seems a long time ago now, but once I was stuck in a state Senate hearing room while a debate raged about the problems at a lock-up for troubled youths in Arkansas.

Some of the state senators wanted to make a change; others wanted to hire a new firm from some glossy brochures and promises made by an eloquent, prepared public relations team all clad in shiny Brooks Brothers suits; others just wanted to move on to other pressing items in the agenda.

One or two were there to tell sad tales of mistreatment, malfeasance and bad management.

But a wise old senator, after about 20 minutes of back and forth indecision, grabbed up an old style microphone in the hearing room and quickly asked the real question.

"Ya'll are missing the point," the rumpled suited senator slowly said, scanning his colleagues at the hearing table.

The entourage of consultants, lobbyists, state experts, state employees and department brass -- were stunned by this abrupt outburst.

"What are we going to do with all these kids in the meantime during all this debate? We can't just hang 'em up on a nail, like an old jacket waiting on the carpenter to build us a better closet."

The frustrated senator yielded the microphone, sat down at the table and asked that the stunned chairman move on to other business.

The air left the room.

The committee moved on.

That decision would be left to another day when more concrete answers were forthcoming.

Fast forward to last month.

Governor Asa Hutchinson, on the heels of several embarrassing investigations into Youth Lock Ups in Arkansas and some of those investigations resulting in criminal charges being levied against Arkansans working in these facilities, says he has made a decision on who will manage these lockup facilities.

It will not be the state of Arkansas or the current groups of private firms that have, thus far, proven to be less than satisfactory in their running of the state's juvenile detention centers.

Gov. Hutchinson said he has settled on an Indiana company (a private provider) to manage the state's five youth prisons.

Not so fast said some members of the Arkansas Legislative Council, an interim body to manage the state's business between Legislative Sessions.

The members of the ALC questioned the governor's choice after some less than serious gum-shoe investigations into the Indiana firm's failure at other state's facilities for youths.

Is Arkansas just trading one bad actor for the state's troubled kids for another bad actor?

The ALC voted 9 to 5 not to review the new contract with the for-profit Youth Opportunity Investments LLC.

In all transparency, there were 13 other members of the Arkansas Legislative Council who were absent that day from the proceedings.

But still the state's business must go on.

And under a proposed deadline to get rid of the old firms and the state's control over these youth lockups, the state needs to move on replacing the old firms with a new firm.

But does it have to a firm that is having its own similar control problems elsewhere?

The rub came out with a quick answer.

The state's Executive Branch -- i.e. the Governor -- can override this vote from the Legislative Branch to direct the contract.

Sen. Linda Chesterfield, D-Little Rock, may have said it best: "It is the responsibility of the executive branch to do as it will," she said.

"It is my hope that whatever they decide -- and I suspect this is a done deal -- that there is oversight."

Because remember, you can't just hang these kids on a nail until you figure it out.

--MAYLON RICE IS A FORMER JOURNALIST WHO WORKED FOR SEVERAL NORTHWEST ARKANSAS PUBLICATIONS. HE CAN BE REACHED VIA EMAIL AT MAYLONTRICE@YAHOO.COM. THE OPINIONS EXPRESSED ARE THOSE OF THE AUTHOR.

Editorial on 06/12/2019

Print Headline: Who is keeping an eye on these kids?

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