LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (KTHV) – THV11 has closely followed Arkansas' prison problems over the past few years, but there are different issues at play within the state's youth detention centers. Now, a man who helped shed light on Little Rock's gang problems of the '90s is working to shed light on problems in the state's juvenile justice system.
In 1994, Steve Nawojczyk was best known as the Pulaski County Coroner featured in the ‘HBO Films’ documentary Gang War: Bangin' in Little Rock. More than 20 years later and now retired from the state Division of Youth Services, Nawojczyk is working on a new project.
"I was identifying the problem in the past and I was criticized a little bit for never offering a solution, Hell, I didn't know what the solution was, nobody knew what the solution was. But now I think we know what the solution is,” said Nawojczyk. “I think what I can bring to the table is the ability to tell the story in a way that people can understand it. There has to be a long, hard look at the way that juvenile justice is being handled in the state of Arkansas, and not just in the state of Arkansas, this is a national movement."
Yell County Director of Detention Mike May took over as head of the county’s juvenile detention center in February of 2015, and says the way the state looks at how it handles juvenile justice from a broad perspective needs a complete overhaul.
"Our Governor is listening to the wrong people,” said May. "Money comes before the kid. We as a society are failing these kids. A lot of people look at it like the kids are failing us, we're failing them. Until we, as a society, figure out a way to break the wheel it's going to continue to roll."
One example of how the state is failing these kids, according to May, Nawojczyk and others, is a lack of mental health services for children who get locked up in the state's juvenile detention centers.
"Over 90 percent of the kids that come into the system have mental health issues, I mean that's a fact,” said Dr. Brad Holloway, an Assistant Professor at Arkansas State University, mental health professional and former juvenile probation officer. "It shouldn't be that hard to fix. I mean if we have the data to show that it helps and that this is what the need is, we ought to be able to get into some of those juvenile detention centers and be able to provide some services."
"Putting kids in jail is not the solution. Some kids need to go to jail, there are some very bad kids. We need to, in Arkansas, do a better job of assessment on the front end; we need to be sure that children, when they are in jail, that they get the proper mental health services,” added Nawojczyk. “Part of the reason that we’re in the mess that we’re in is because it’s been sort of band-aided together over the years and it’s such a convoluted system and there are so many people involved in it, it’s hard for the general public to understand.”
Nawojczyk is working on a new documentary, which he hopes will help open peoples' eyes to the change that he says needs to happen and will help push state lawmakers to make those changes a priority when they head back to the state capitol next year. Nawojczyk hopes to crowdsource his documentary and says he has already seen interest from various film distributors. His goal is to have it complete before the 2017 legislative session in order for it to have a bigger impact on lawmakers.