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In Missouri, teenage offenders treated with schooling, therapy in homelike settings

In Missouri, teenage offenders treated with schooling, therapy in homelike settings

At age 9, Korey Davis came home from school with gang writing on his arm. At 10, he hijacked his first car. At 13, he and some buddies got guns, used them to relieve a man of his Jeep, and later, while trying to outrun a police helicopter, smacked their hot wheels into a fire hydrant.
For his exploits, Davis pulled not only a 15-year sentence but got "certified" as an adult offender and shipped off to the St. Louis City workhouse to inspire a change of heart.
It didn't have the desired effect.
"I wasn't wanting to listen to nobody," says Korey, now 19. "If you wasn't my momma, or anybody in my family, I wasn't gonna listen to you, period."
Most states would have written Korey off and begun shuttling him from one adult prison to the next, where he likely would have joined a gang and spent his days in a cell plotting his next crime.
But this is Missouri, where teen offenders are viewed not just as inmates but as works in progress _ where troubled kids are rehabilitated in small, homelike settings that stress group therapy and personal development over isolation and punishment.
With prisons around the country filled to bursting, and with states looking to bring down recidivism rates that rise to 70 and 80 percent, some policymakers are taking a fresh look at treatment-oriented approaches like Missouri's as a way out of America's juvenile justice crisis.
Here, prison-style "gladiator schools" have been replaced by 42 community-based centers around the state so that now, even parents of inner-city offenders can easily visit their children and participate in family therapy.
The ratio of staff to kids is low: one-to-five. Wards, referred to as "clients," are grouped in teams of 10, and rarely separated: They go to classes together, eat together, and bunk in communal "cottages." Evenings, they attend therapy and counseling sessions as a group.
Missouri does not set timetables for release, a policy that detainees say gives kids an added incentive to take the program seriously.
College students or other volunteers who live in the released youths' community track these youths for three years, helping with job placement, therapy referrals, school issues and drug or alcohol treatment.
The results?
_About 8.6 percent of teens who complete Missouri's program are incarcerated in adult prisons within three years of release, according to 2006 figures. (In New York, 75 percent are re-arrested as adults, 42 percent for a violent felony.)
_Last year, 7.3 percent of teen offenders released from Missouri's youth facilities were recommitted to juvenile centers for new offenses. Texas, which spends about 20 percent more to keep a child in juvenile corrections, has a recidivism rate that tops 50 percent.
_No Missouri teens have committed suicide while in custody since 1983, when the state began overhauling its system. From 1995 to 1999 alone, at least 110 young people killed themselves in juvenile facilities nationwide, according to the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives.
Does this "law-and-order" state know something others don't?
Hardly, says Mark Steward, who, as director of the state's Division of Youth Services from 1987 to 2005, oversaw the development of what many experts regard as America's best juvenile rehabilitation system.
Says Steward: "It's about giving young people structure, and love and attention, and not allowing them to hurt themselves or other people. Pretty basic stuff, really. It's just that a lot of these kids haven't gotten the basic stuff."
Take Korey Davis. He did not meet his dad until he was 5. He and his siblings were raised largely by aunts and uncles. If the judge handling his case had left him in county detention centers until he reached adult age _ 17, in Missouri _ then had him serve the rest of his sentence in prison, few eyebrows would have been raised.
But a chance to save a life would have been missed. "In jail, I wouldn't never have changed what I always done," Davis says. "There was no treatment at all."
He adds: "Right now, I'd probably be dead."
In Missouri, judges can keep serious felons in the juvenile system until they are 21. That's what happened with Davis. At 15, he was sent to the Montgomery City Project, where robbers, rapists and the like get one last shot.
At first, he didn't want it.
But a year into his stay, two things changed him: the news that his younger brother had been shot and wounded in a gang fight, and an invitation from a counselor to sit down, after class, to read a book out loud with her.
To a boy accustomed to hiding his illiteracy, the offer felt awkward. But because this woman had given him a chance, he responded, and "when I actually learned how to read, it made everything in the world easier for me."
Three years later, Davis is a group leader. He reads voraciously. He's been accepted by a technical college and plans to study carpentry. And, he's proud to say, his kid brother has taken to heart this advice:
"Put the guns down."
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Many states are trying to bring down high rates of repeat offenses by juveniles.
Wisconsin now treats some repeat offenders with mental health counselors. Illinois offers them drug treatment and job placement. Washington state targets kids at risk of becoming serious offenders with early, intensive anger-management and group therapy.
Research guided these approaches. One 2006 study, for example, found that anger-management, foster-care treatment and family group therapy cut recidivism drastically among teens, resulting in taxpayer savings up to $78,000 (euro53,100) per child. Programs that tried to scare kids into living a clean life were money losers, according to the study by the Washington State Institute for Public Policy.
Missouri, though takes rehabilitation further by normalizing the environments of children in custody, says Barry Krisberg, president of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.
"The more normal the environment, the more likely these young people will be able to return home and not be sucked into a criminal subculture," he says.
Montgomery City, built for Missouri's worst juvenile offenders, could be mistaken for a college campus.
In a literature class, students analyze plot lines in "A Farewell to Arms." In a computer lab, they write resumes. In a central courtyard, they celebrate "Victim Empathy Week" by huddling in a circle with lit candles and praying for their victims.
The cottages where they sleep resemble college dorms, with one notable difference: These are immaculate.
Ten teens are assigned to a cottage. Each gets a bed with quilt, pillow, nightstand, and an understood "space." In this space are often collected the remnants of truncated childhood such as stuffed animals and Dr. Seuss books.
"When you walk into these facilities and see 17- and 18-year-olds with dolls on their pillows, that's when it hits you: 'Hey, these really are just kids,'" says Ned Loughran, executive director of the Council of Juvenile Correctional Administrators.
Some things you won't see in this detention center: razor wire, barred windows, uniformed guards, billyclubs, or kids in orange jumpsuits.
Treatment comes in "group builders" _ sessions in which detainees open up to one another about traumas, crimes and family conflicts that have scarred them. Kids can also call a "circle," in which team members stand and face each other to air grievances, fears and anguish.
Two staff specialists sit in on the circles, but the kids generally run them. Teams that interact more are rewarded _ day furloughs to visit family, fishing trips, an afternoon volunteering at a food bank. Those who pull against the program find themselves pressured by peers to shape up.
"We know that when we do positive things as a group, we earn things," says Chan Meas, 17.
Montgomery City is a "Level 4" facility, meaning high security. It has isolation rooms, and every door locks automatically. Video cameras in walls and ceilings film everything, everywhere, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Teens need passes to go from one room to the next.
Only staff may authorize a restraint, but once they do, team members grab arms and legs and pin their peer to the floor until the child stops resisting.
Tim Decker, Missouri's youth services director, says there has never been a serious injury during a restraint, and rates of injury are markedly lower here than in states that rely on billyclubs and mace.
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A half hour west of Montgomery City, in the university town of Fulton, there is a house that looks just right for a summer camp. It is brick, with a maple tree out front, a wide lawn and a wrought-iron sign that reads, "Welcome Friends."
Inside are comfy sofas, bookcases holding trophies, vases full of flowers, and 11 girls, ranging in age from 12 to 17, who have been convicted of truancy, assault, drug crimes, theft and forgery _ bright kids carrying darkness around inside.
This is the Rosa Parks Center, a detention home on the campus of William Woods University. Here, the girls get counseling, schooling, a feeling of togetherness.
"I had a lot of problems being angry," says Brooklyn Schaller, 15, who was arrested on drug charges and for violating a parental curfew. "I would be aggressive. I didn't care about anyone else, or anything else." But after just a year, even she has noticed a change.
What's been the difference?
Good role models help: The girls get to mingle with college students in the campus dining hall and attend campus plays and other cultural events. At the start of the school year they describe their experiences to incoming students during orientation week.
The Rosa Parks Center opened in 2001, part of Missouri's response to the quandary over what to do with the problem of juveline crime. Missouri had already tried the tough approach. From 1887 to 1983, young offenders were confined either at the Boonville Training School for Boys, or the Chillicothe Training School for Girls.
Boonville warehoused 650 boys in grim, two-story structures. There was rape and other brutality by guards.
Which is why conservatives such as John Ashcroft, the former Missouri senator and U.S. attorney general, and state Supreme Court Justice Stephen Limbaugh, a cousin of radio commentator Rush Limbaugh, joined with liberals such as the late Gov. Mel Carnahan to stick by reforms initiated in the late 1970s.
"What is remarkable about Missouri's system is that is has been sustained by conservative and liberal governments," says Krisberg, of the national crime and delinquency council. "In many ways, it's a commonsense issue."
A common-cents issue, too _ since it costs states between $100 (euro68) and $300 (euro204) a day to keep a juvenile in so-called "punitive" correctional facilities, according to a 2005 report by the Youth Transition Funders Group, a philanthropy network.
Missouri's per capita cost: $130 (euro88.50) a day.


Updated : 2021-01-22 00:20 GMT+08:00