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Spare the Rod, Save the Child

Missouri's youth prisons focus on small groups, therapy, caring. Officials in California's punishment-oriented system are taking a look.

July 01, 2004|Jenifer Warren | Times Staff Writer

ST. JOSEPH, Mo. — There are no handcuffs, no razor-wire fences, no uniforms, no cells. Missouri does things differently in its prisons for young people, and it shows -- in what you see and what you don't.

Inmates, referred to as "kids," live in dorms that feature beanbag chairs, potted plants, stuffed animals and bunk beds with smiley-face comforters. Guards -- who are called "youth specialists" and must have college degrees -- go by their first names and don't hesitate to offer hugs.

At the maximum-security lockup in St. Joseph, two cats, Midnight and Tigger, curl up on laps as the state's toughest teenage offenders explore the roots of their anger, weep over the acts of abusive parents and swap strategies for breaking free of gangs. At another facility in Kansas City, boys who rack up months of good behavior earn the right to attend summer basketball camp.

"The old corrections model was a failure; most kids left us worse off than when they came in," said Mark Steward, the chief of Missouri's youth penal system. "So we threw away that culture, and now we focus on treatment, on making connections with these guys and showing them another way.... It works."

As California struggles to reshape a juvenile prison system so troubled and violent that some legislators want it closed down, Missouri -- the Show Me State -- is winning accolades as the national leader in handling kids who break the law.

"Missouri is the best model we have out there," said Paul DeMuro, a New Jersey-based juvenile justice consultant and former chief of youth prisons in Pennsylvania.

"It works because they believe in the 'small is beautiful' theory," agreed Barry Krisberg, president of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency and the author of a recent report on California's juvenile system. "It's about high-quality treatment in an intimate setting."

Comparing recidivism numbers is tricky, but Missouri is clearly a standout among states, Krisberg said. A 2003 study found that of the 1,400 teenagers released in 1999, only 8% wound up in adult prisons. California does not keep a comparable statistic. About half of those released from its juvenile prisons, however, will be back behind bars within two years, officials say. Missouri's system also delivers when it comes to another important measurement: cost. It spends about $43,000 a year per child. California's per capita tab is nearly twice that -- $80,000 -- largely because its officers are paid almost twice as much, though the cost of living in the Golden State is near the top nationally, while Missouri's is among the lowest, statistics show.

Not one young inmate has committed suicide in the two decades since Missouri altered its approach to delinquent kids. In the California Youth Authority, meanwhile, 15 have killed themselves since 1996, including two boys found hanging by bedsheets last January in the isolation cell they shared.

Drawn by the success stories, delegations of corrections officials from around the nation are visiting Missouri for a closer look. Several states, including Louisiana, Georgia, Maryland, New Jersey and Illinois, have launched or are considering copycat programs.

Over the last 20 years, Missouri has replaced a traditional approach to young criminals -- large, prison-like lockups with an emphasis on punishment and isolation -- with small group settings that blend highly trained staff with constant therapy and positive peer pressure.

Convinced that family connections are crucial, Missouri also takes pains to house children within 50 miles of their homes. If necessary, the government sends a van to enable parents to visit.

"The Missouri system is everything the California system isn't," DeMuro said. "It's a matter of philosophy and the will to do something right and appropriate, rather than warehousing kids and creating a hotbed for gangs and more violence."

Officials in California say the pervasive presence of gangs in the state, and the fact that the CYA houses inmates as old as 25, makes the Missouri system unworkable in the Golden State. In Missouri, most inmates in juvenile prisons are younger than 18, though some are as old as 21.

"Everything I hear about Missouri tells me its programs work great for the population they have, but our demographics are very different," said Kevin Carruth, California's undersecretary of youth and adult corrections. Still, CYA Director Walt Allen plans to visit Missouri and several other states in the coming months, looking for ideas.

Krisberg, who has been advising Allen on how to address the CYA's problems, agrees that California is "different from the rest of the world, so in some ways comparisons don't make much sense." He added, however, that the essence of Missouri's system -- a commitment to small programs that emphasize treatment and rehabilitation -- could be imported.

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