7 court officers given reprieve on elimination of county jobs

Pulaski County Judge Barry Hyde will allow seven five probation and two intake officers formerly assigned to the 11th Division Circuit Court to remain employed with county through February of 2021.

In a statement read by Quorum Court and County Services Director Justin Blagg, Hyde cited covid-19 as a reason to keep them employed and promised to assist them in finding new employment before February.

The positions are being eliminated as part of a restructuring of the county’s juvenile courts, which are being reduced from three divisions to two.

Several circuit judges have raised concerns about the elimination of the positions.

“In light of the time of the year and difficult circumstances we’ve been working through in the past nine months, it is agreed that these employees should be given the opportunity to continue their [work] with the county in their current positions until the end of February 2021,” Hyde said. “And we will make every effort to assist them to find other employment opportunities with the county if they so choose.”

Hyde added that the “grace period” would ensure cases are transferred from the current probation officers to other probation officers gradually.

Judge Patricia James of the 11th Division Circuit Court thanked Hyde while also urging the Quorum Court to reconsider eliminating the positions.

“I appreciate Judge Hyde considering the situation we have of trying to get through the end of the year and making sure we have a smooth transition from three juvenile judges to two,” James said. “I would hope that we would consider amending in the future to continue to have these employees work for 10th and 8th division.”

The positions were moved from the 11th Division court during the Oct. 20 budget meeting when Justice of the Peace Phil Stowers motioned for them to be moved with only Justice of the Peace Julie Blackwood dissenting.

James sent a letter on Nov. 12 to Hyde, the Quorum Court, fellow Arkansas judges and others citing Stowers’ motion to move the probation staff from her court to Juvenile Detention Services, a division of the county that is becoming a quasi-criminal court at the beginning of 2021.

The staff members were told that they would be “downsized,” James continued, and would not have a job after Dec. 31. This move, according to James, violates Arkansas law by blocking the rights of the judges to have probation officers serve “at the pleasure of the judge or judges.”

“Chastity Scifres, the human resources director for the county, doesn’t have the authority to hire or fire intake and probation employees,” James told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. “That would be the first concern is that she did that without contacting me or, basically they work for the judges.”

Pulaski County Attorney Adam Fogelman replied with his own memo on Monday, arguing that, according to the Arkansas law, the Quorum Court acted lawfully in exercising its power to fix the compensation and number of county employees answerable to a county elected officer.

“State employees are required, for a position to be a state employee, the position, the number of positions and the salary has to set by the general assembly,” Fogelman said. “The general assembly has never fixed the number of juvenile intake and probation officers. The county does provide juvenile intake and probation officers, and, if a position is created by a Quorum Court under amendment 55 section 3, they are hired by a county judge or another elected official on behalf of the county.”

The impact of the action is not just a legal one, according to James. The families and juveniles of the county will also be affected by the firing as the workload for the remaining 10 probation officers will increase, especially with additional programs the state of Arkansas has for probation officers, James said.

Probation officers for juveniles are tasked with a SAVRY assessment, which stands for Structured Assessment of Violence Risk in Youth, or a session of about five hours interviewing the parents, interviewing the juvenile, contacting the school, getting their past criminal record and having the child fill out self-assessment forms.

“That makes our caseloads … 25 [cases] would be very, very difficult if you’re doing a SAVRY on each kid that you have under your supervision because you also have to spend time supervising the juveniles — helping them get into school, helping them get therapy services they need — things of that nature,” James said.

The current average caseload for probation officers in James’ court is 20, surpassing the national recommendation of 15 cases per officer. The increase could cause some problems for the other courts who only have four and six probation officers, respectively, according to James.

“Judge Johnson is going to be without a sufficient probation staff to be able to run her division, because they’re taking my entire docket and dividing it between 8th and 10th division,” James said.

When an ordinance to return the juvenile probation officer positions to the courts, sponsored by Blackwood, came up during Thursday night’s budget committee meeting, the measure died without receiving a second from any of the other members of the budget committee.

Blackwood said after the meeting that she did not know why none of the other members would even hear the ordinance.

“The other justices might even be willing for it to go to court to allow for a lawsuit so they could get an understanding of the law,” Blackwood said. “Because there is a question of the law, and no one seems to understand what the law is.”

Blackwood said the probation officer positions are extremely important because of the importance of keeping the caseload down.

“When you get overloaded with too many cases, you cannot keep up with each child,” Blackwood said. “It is so hard to keep up with each child and what their problems are and what each issue is. If you’ve got too many children, someone is going to fall through the cracks.”

Stowers said that he thought James’ argument was a “strawman” argument, but he could see himself in the same position making the same argument.

“If the Supreme Court is going to decide that, based on caseload, we no longer need three judges in juvenile [and] we need two, then, at least in my mind, logic would tell me that we need staffing for two, not for three. And I think she’s trying to protect some people who’ve been loyal to her and I appreciate that. I have no issue with what she’s trying to do. I would probably do the same thing in her shoes.”

According to Stowers, the county will have a spot for the officers who are losing their positions.

“We’re going to work with them to help them find a job,” Stowers said. “They’ll still be employed by the county. Maybe they’re picking up sticks on the side of the road or litter. Maybe they’re working for HR in some capacity. Maybe they’re working in detention, but those positions as of January 1st fall under the jurisdiction of the county judge, Barry Hyde.”

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