Not long after he fired the bullet that would carve out the trajectory of his young life, Andrew, 17, came to respect what he considered the essential rule of juvenile lockup. He learned that to survive, you fight. And in his months at St. Louis' juvenile detention center awaiting a hearing for attempted murder, he threw the punches as often as required.

Juvenile justice in Missouri serves as model for nation

“The only thing I was doing was fighting every day,” he said. So when Andrew was sentenced to serve time in a center for the most severe juvenile offenders in the St. Louis region, he entered with clenched fists. Seven months later, he has yet to use them. In all his time at Hogan Street Regional Youth Center in St. Louis, he hasn't seen a single skirmish between the 30-plus boys at the center.

The hours he expected to spend in a sterile cell have instead been invested in study and therapy in lounges that resemble family rooms and a dorm room straight out of summer camp. It's an environment that Andrew credits with helping him become Hogan Street's class president and placing him a hair shy of earning his high school equivalency certificate.

Andrew isn't the only one awe-struck by his experience. Over the past decade — but especially in the past year — Missouri repeatedly has been singled out for having what many regard as the best juvenile rehabilitation system in the nation. The system is so good that many juvenile experts predict that Missouri might help inspire reform in other states. To that end, dozens of officials from Illinois, Louisiana, Mississippi, Georgia and Maryland, to name a few, have recently toured Missouri juvenile centers.

They come to see a system that emphasizes rehabilitation over punishment and to marvel at the lack of razor wire at even the most high-security sites. They come to study a state that turned its back on large penitentiary-style “training schools” in favor of smaller settings where offenders typically are assigned to groups of no more than 12. And they come to learn how Missouri has done this while posting a recidivism rate described as among the lowest in the nation.

According to available data, offenders who leave Missouri's system are from 50 percent to 66 percent less likely to re-enter adult or juvenile corrections than offenders from states who measure recidivism in similar ways.

Louisiana state Sen. Don Cravins is among more than 100 delegates from that state who have made the pilgrimage to Missouri. Louisiana's juvenile correction system was sued by the Justice Department in 1998. Conditions at the state's largest boys training school were so violent that investigators found dozens of serious injuries each month.

Cravins said he was struck most in Missouri by what he saw in the offenders. “They still have some light in their eyes,” he said. “You still see a vision there, as opposed to our system, where the lights have been dimmed.”

Mark Soler, president of the Youth Law Center in San Francisco, has spent 25 years trying to reform juvenile correction systems. In the process, he inspected dozens of juvenile centers, often turning up what he describes as “gulag” conditions. He tells of isolation rooms that reek of urine and offenders who were hog-tied naked for hours in cells.

In Missouri, he found what he hopes will become a beacon to other states. “It's something Missouri can be proud of,” Soler said. “It's a legitimate big deal in juvenile justice.”

The cottage experiment
Some observers say what's most remarkable about Missouri's system is how starkly it contrasts with juvenile corrections in the state 20 years ago. For the better part of a century, juvenile offenders - from truants to attempted murderers — were essentially warehoused at either the Boonville Training School for Boys or the Chillicothe Training School for Girls. For decades, conditions at Boonville — which at one point housed 650 boys — were described as deplorable.

In 1948, three boys at Boonville lost their lives. In 1969, a federal report criticized the training school's lack of rehabilitation, poor education and its penitentiary feel, which included a dark confinement cell referred to as “The Hole.”

The resolve to change the system in the mid-1970s led people like Mark Steward to experiment with a different approach. Steward, who was working at Boonville at the time, said he and others persuaded officials to take 100 of the training school's worst offenders and house them at an abandoned Job Corps site near Poplar Bluff, Mo. The approach relied heavily on rehabilitation, with small groups of offenders living in cottages. Before long, Steward had influential supporters, and cottage sites began to crop up across the state. In 1983, Missouri made a clean break from the training school approach and closed the Boonville center.

Steward later was appointed director of Missouri's Division of Youth Services, overseeing an entire system that mimics the cottage experiments of 25 years ago.

Hallmarks of Missouri's approach include:

  • The opening of nearly three dozen residential programs, most of which enroll fewer than 35 offenders. Nearly all the youths live within 50 miles of home, so parents can participate in therapy.
  • A wide range of programs so that violent offenders are kept separate from those guilty of less serious crimes.
  • Numerous day-treatment centers to help recent inmates make the transition to life outside.

Nearly $7 million distributed to counties to divert less serious offenders to local, nonresidential treatment. Some credit the approach with helping Missouri keep the cost of serving offenders low, compared with states that rely more heavily on lockups.

Douglas Abrams, a professor at the University of Missouri at Columbia, has written a history of the state's juvenile justice system. “Missouri was really swimming against the tide,” Abrams said. “It's remarkable that Missouri took the approach it took in a law-and-order state.”

Jefferson County Circuit Judge Dennis Kehm heads a bipartisan commission that monitors the juvenile corrections system. He says the reform worked because it happened incrementally. Rather than revolutionizing juvenile corrections with a single bill, he said, Missouri experimented and built on success. He says support has been cemented each time judges see kids who pass through their court break free from their pasts.

Smaller is better
For Andrew, Hogan Street is the only thing he believes could have helped him to put his life together. Last July, a feud over a girl mushroomed into a series of fights, punctuated by Andrew pulling out a gun and shooting his rival in the head. His victim survived and is receiving letters through the court in which Andrew said he had repeatedly apologized for his crime.

In the meantime, workers at Hogan Street say Andrew has become a charismatic center of gravity within his group of a dozen offenders. He said he relied on the group for support, confiding in them in therapy sessions. He now thinks he can see a way toward a productive life, and imagines himself becoming a mechanic.

Many observers say the key to Missouri's success lies in the way the small groups are able to resist the formation of a prison culture. “You institutionalize them and get them used to an institution, and they can't get away from it,” Soler said.

Offenders from several other juvenile programs in the St. Louis area describe their small groups in terms similar to a Scout troop, with a hierarchy based on merit and an intolerance for those who pull against the group.

Cory, a 16-year-old at the state's Babler Lodge program, said he learned quickly that he needed to get with the program or risk the alienation of his peers. He found unexpected freedoms as a reward. This summer, Cory's group raised enough money selling concessions around town to pay for a two-week trip to Washington, Boston and New York.

Other offenders regularly attend cultural sites, professional ballgames and take long excursions on bikes. Steward has no qualms about offering offenders those kinds of opportunities. “What we try to do is show them things that are legal that are fun,” Steward said.

Even so, the Missouri programs aren't a fairyland. Workers still restrain kids who get out of line and will attach leg chains and handcuffs to those who don't comply with rules. “It's not all about freedom.,” said Makayla, 16, a resident of the Missouri Hills campus in north St. Louis County. “If you want freedom you have to earn it.”

Nor is Missouri's juvenile system without flaws. For starters, the accolades showered on the state refer only to programs offered to juvenile offenders once they are sentenced by a judge. Before that, youths serve time in county detention centers, which vary widely in their quality and approach. Some still lock up kids in small cells for large portions of the day.

“I would never send anyone to Missouri to look at them for what they do in detention,” said Bart Lubow, director of the Annie E. Casey Foundation's Program for High Risk Youth. Some observers are concerned that individual courts use different standards in sending offenders to state programs. While some judges may refer only the most serious offenders, others also send kids with more minor charges, such as truancy, into state custody.

Kehm said he and other judges also worry about a lack of parental involvement in children's rehabilitation.

But Steward said the proof of Missouri's approach is in the recidivism numbers.

Of the 1,212 youths discharged from the Division of Youth Services in the 1999 fiscal year, only about 6 percent entered adult prison within four years. Comparisons to other states are tricky because of varying definitions of juvenile offenders. But an analysis of comparable statistics compiled by the Annie E. Casey Foundation turned up rates at least twice as high in Maryland, Louisiana and Florida.

Barry Krisberg, who heads the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, has looked at recidivism from all angles. While he agrees that Missouri has not undergone a rigorous study tracking outcomes, he doesn't hesitate in declaring Missouri a leader. “I think it's among the best, if not the best system in the nation,” he said.

Krisberg believes that with federal inquiries in several states, the timing is right for a reexamination of juvenile corrections across the country. In the past year, interest in Missouri's approach has escalated, due in part to a grant from the Casey Foundation that has covered the travel expenses of officials wanting to see the reforms.

In Louisiana, many credit the trips to Missouri for inspiring leaders to finally close the door on the state's largest and troubled training school. “Everything we are doing in Louisiana is fashioned after the Missouri model,” Cravins said. Georgia, meanwhile, has hired a former Division of Youth Services employee from Missouri and has launched a pilot program based on reforms here.

And in Maryland, a group of lawmakers filed nearly a dozen bills after a trip to Missouri. While most of the legislation did not pass, supporters predict that Maryland ultimately will follow Missouri's lead.

Pat Connell, of the John Howard Association, a corrections reform group in Chicago, is eager for Illinois to copy what she saw on a trip to Missouri last month. Connell was most struck by the casual, nonprison-like feel of Missouri's high security centers. Illinois, in contrast, has eight large juvenile corrections centers, where offenders often live in private cells and staff members wear police-style uniforms. He said it's not that Illinois' system is a terribly bad one. Her concern, is that the “institution is not organized around treatment. It's organized around security.”

Cecil Jones, who heads Illinois' juvenile corrections division, said he was impressed by what he saw in Missouri. But he and other corrections officials warn that it's too soon to say whether the reforms would translate in Illinois.

Lubow warns that cloning Missouri's system isn't easy. He said the transformation would require enormous amounts of training to change the culture in juvenile correction. Even so, people like David Utter of the nonprofit Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana, say that having a state model is invaluable.

“I could talk for half a day and not convey how important it is that we have a place like Missouri that we can look to,” Utter said.

By Matthew Franck
6 October 2003