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Old 10-24-2004, 01:04 AM
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Default Article : Missouri's youth prisons try softer approach



By Karen de Sα

Mercury News

KANSAS CITY, Mo. - In Missouri's lock-ups for its toughest juvenile offenders, stuffed animals, smiley-face bedspreads and fresh sunflowers take the place of the handcuffs, Mace and isolation cells common in California's youth prisons.

Treatment prevails over punishment. ``Students'' and ``clients'' -- not wards or inmates -- move freely around homey cottages. They choose their own clothing, attend classes, and rarely fight or threaten suicide. The program's success is evident in their lengths of stay: After an average of eight months, Missouri youths are considered safe for release. In California, young offenders spend an average of about three years -- and as many as seven -- in custody.

While abuse and scandal plague many of the nation's juvenile facilities, Missouri's Division of Youth Services has not faced a lawsuit over the care of its residents in 35 years. Its longtime director, Mark Steward, brings ``his kids'' home for sleepovers, Thanksgiving dinners and swimming parties.

And unlike California's prisons for youth offenders -- which see roughly three of four arrested on new criminal charges within three years after release -- Missouri's system turns out more young people who reject their delinquent pasts.

About 34 percent of Missouri's young offenders are sentenced to adult or juvenile programs for new offenses within three years of leaving a Youth Services facility. Experts say that is an impressive rate, although Missouri uses a narrower definition of recidivism than California. California's 74 percent rate includes all arrests, whether or not they lead to incarceration.

And yet, juvenile incarceration costs Missouri taxpayers about half of what Californians pay per inmate.

Although Missouri's population is smaller and more homogeneous, it has gang-ridden housing projects in St. Louis and other urban areas and juvenile crimes that are as heinous as those in any other part of the country. Such similarities are a major reason why the state's remarkable approach -- and results -- are attracting widespread attention and drawing visits from legislators, correctional officials, judges and reformers nationwide.

In recent months, the director of the California Youth Authority, as well as a parent-activist group and a delegation of 17 Santa Clara County officials, have toured facilities in Missouri, looking for ideas on reform. Walter Allen, the California Youth Authority's director, is now planning a Missouri-style pilot program.

``It's amazing,'' Steward told Allen during a recent tour of youth treatment centers in and around Kansas City. ``These kids, when they come in, they're hard, they're angry, they act tough. But once you break that shell, you get to them, and they just shine.''

To be sure, Missouri's Division of Youth Services handles a population that's different in many ways from the Youth Authority's. First and foremost, Missouri houses offenders up to age 18, while California retains jurisdiction over juvenile offenders until they are 21 or 25, depending on the offense. Gang culture is less entrenched in Missouri because gangs tend to be less multi-generational than they often are in California.

And the Missouri system is smaller than California's. About 1,300 youths are sent to Youth Services facilities every year, but the average stay is only eight months, and the total number of youths in custody is never more than about 750. By comparison, the Youth Authority houses 3,900 wards, and their average stay is almost three years; about 800 are younger than 18.

But California's goal is the same as Missouri's -- to reform young criminals. And Steward believes his model can be replicated in any state; several already are duplicating its approach.

On his tour in July, Allen told Steward that he ``despises'' California's juvenile system more each day.

``You've made a believer out of me,'' Allen exclaimed after sharing a lunch of fried chicken and collard greens with the students, who grew the produce on campus grounds.

`People who care'
• Teen asks to stay in system longer

As youths showed the visiting officials around the Northwest Regional Youth Center in Kansas City and the Riverbend Treatment Center in St. Joseph, they found maximum security facilities with no barbed wire or guards patrolling the buildings. A colorful banner at the Riverbend entrance read, ``All things grow with love.''

At the Northwest center, they met Nathan Clark, a 17-year-old sent in for dealing crack, who felt so secure living at the state institution that he stayed on for eight months after his release.

Nathan had a job arranged on the outside in a movie theater, and he was accepted by a four-year university for this fall, but he feared going home and reverting to his old ways. So the juvenile agency, known for its individualized treatment plans, let him stay at Northwest until he moved into a dorm at Central Missouri State University in September.

In the almost two years he was housed by the state, Nathan said he had not seen a single fight or pair of handcuffs. He attended daily group therapy sessions that students open with statements on their physical, mental and spiritual health, and confronted his own story of crime and addiction that began at age 9. Two teddy bears wait for him on his pillow each night.

Moving freely about his dorm complex and dressed in a bright-yellow button-down shirt and slacks, Nathan said he knows that teens in other states wear prison-issue clothes and spend hours locked in bare cells. He says he is grateful that Missouri gave him the chance ``to be human.'' He and his peers clean their own clothes, wash dishes and vacuum their living units. In addition to attending five or six hours of school a day, they tend an organic garden and often leave the grounds to help staff food banks and supervise children at community swimming pools.

``If they lock you up and treat you like an animal, that's how you're going to act,'' Nathan said. ``Here, you've got people who care about you, people who want you to succeed in life.''

Different premise
• Focus placed on changing behavior

Missouri operates on the premise that for youths to change their behavior, they must explore the deep and often lifelong dysfunctions that lead to crime. To do that, they must first feel safe and cared for. Many of the California Youth Authority's problems are exacerbated by its punitive, violent culture, experts say, and the Missouri model provides clear alternatives for many of the problems highlighted in the Mercury News.

• When a teenager enters Missouri's Division of Youth Services, the first step is a meticulous screening process that includes a home visit. Caseworkers, who prepare treatment plans tailored for each youth, remain in close contact throughout incarceration and parole. And because Missouri operates 32 residential facilities around the state, officials say they can usually assign each youth to a facility that is no more than 75 miles from home -- which encourages family visits.

This is dramatically different from what happens in California and other states, where inmates bounce from one overloaded case manager to another, with no single person tracking progress from entry through release. In California, youths are routinely moved up and down the state, making it more difficult for relatives to stay in touch.

Parole -- known in Missouri as ``aftercare'' -- lasts just four to six months rather than years, as in California.

• Facilities in Missouri resemble college dorms, in contrast to the Youth Authority's large, prison-style living units, where concrete walls and steel set the tone. The youths live in groups of 10 or 11, in centers with room for 20 to 40 total. There are wooden beds and dressers, over-stuffed couches and beanbag chairs. Students' artwork, Michael Jordan posters and Winnie the Pooh paste-ups decorate brightly colored walls. Each dorm features different bedspreads -- some decorated with stars -- and residents keep their own collections of stuffed animals. Most buildings are not fenced in, and none has barbed wire. In Riverbend, two pet cats -- Tigger and Midnight -- roam the grounds, and the central lounges are welcoming, with aquariums, televisions, dart boards and shelves of board games.

The soft touch often strikes visitors as incongruous: Is it anything more than sentimental window-dressing to surround a teenage criminal with teddy bears and Disney characters? Is it coddling the incorrigible?

But Steward -- and the students themselves -- explain that the coziness is integral to creating a non-threatening environment conducive to treatment. The surroundings help bring out the tenderness in street toughs, who talk readily about how much it means to have a teddy bear -- in some cases, a tangible part of a childhood they never had.

• Missouri staff members are college-educated ``youth specialists'' who typically have studied social work and education, dress informally and use their first names on the job. Youth Authority staffers are mostly guards or former guards who carry Mace and handcuffs and are addressed formally, by their last names.

The focus in Missouri is on de-escalating friction rather than physically subduing teenagers when a fight starts. The staff fosters a culture in which students keep each other in check.

It begins upon arrival, with students insisting that newcomers ``get with the program.'' If a fight starts and the staff's attempts to calm things down fail, the students step in to pin down their peers. Missouri has the only state system authorized to use peer restraint.

When 17-year-old Keith Collins first arrived at Riverbend Treatment Center from a military-style boot camp, he refused to go to school. So the other students simply lifted him up and carried him there.

Keith, who was serving time for car theft, admitted he came in tough and defiant. But, ``with people here, they're in our shoes. There's people in the dorm that look at me like a brother.''

• In Missouri the ratio of residents to staff is 8-to-1, compared with as many as 25-to-1 in the Youth Authority. That means there are enough staff members for every resident in the Missouri system to receive several hours of counseling in small groups every day. In the morning, they meet for about an hour in a large group to discuss activities and problems in the dorm. After school, they are encouraged to write in a journal.

After dinner, residents meet in groups of about 10 for as long as three to four hours with a youth specialist. These sessions aim to delve into the problems that led to the youths' crimes, typically sexual and physical abuse and early exposure to drugs and violence. They explore new ways to break long-held criminal patterns.

Therapy is tailored to each youth as much as possible as one technique centers around building miniature ``treatment houses.'' Residents assemble a model wooden A-frame building, decorating it to reflect their states of mind. They keep their houses on their bedside dressers and update the decoration to show progress.

Shawndell Moss, a 17-year-old former gang member and drug dealer, grew up in Kansas City, in the region's toughest housing projects, sharing a room with five siblings until he went to juvenile hall four years ago.

Shawndell's treatment house has two sides. The back is old and beat-up -- ``how people see me and basically how I feel'' -- the bricks are falling off and there are holes in the walls. The front represents his new vision -- ``the sky's the limit'' -- where white clouds float in a powder-blue sky.

• Education in Missouri centers around five to six hours of classroom instruction each day. This is significantly more than in the Youth Authority, which often falls short of California's required minimum of four hours a day.

Classes in the Youth Authority are frequently canceled because there are no substitutes to cover for teacher absences. Missouri officials say that would rarely happen in their system, because many of the youth specialists who staff the living units also are certified as substitute teachers. When a teacher is absent in Missouri, a youth specialist who is familiar with the students can fill in for that class.

In addition, Missouri assigns either a youth specialist or a teacher's aide to every classroom. This is consistent with the recommendation of experts nationwide, who say that assigning living-unit staffers to work alongside teachers is a way to give students extra help and reinforce the importance of education.

Missouri classes resemble those at the Youth Authority in one respect: They often include a mix of ages and students who are at different levels of proficiency. Also similar to the Youth Authority, teachers may provide group instruction in some subjects, while tailoring specific assignments to individuals.

But in Missouri, student performance is closely monitored. A monthly progress report, including information on their school performance as well as progress in other treatment programs, goes to students, their parents and the court that sent them to Youth Services.

State standard
• Bipartisan support for cottage model

Missouri wasn't always a model for the juvenile justice system.

A federal report in 1969 lashed out at deplorable conditions in its one state-run institution, the Boonville Training School for Boys, which housed as many as 650 12- to 18-year-olds. A year later, Steward, the system's current director who was then a counselor, helped open a 75-bed pilot program at an abandoned Job Corps site near the state's southeast border. Missouri placed small groups of the most serious offenders in cottages and provided them with intensive group therapy.

The cottage model worked so well that it quickly spread. When the Boonville school closed in 1983, small group care became the state standard.

A bipartisan advisory panel now oversees the Division of Youth Services, with supporters in even the staunchest tough-on-crime ranks.

State Supreme Court Justice Stephen Limbaugh, a cousin of conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh, served on the advisory board as an appointee of then-Gov. John Ashcroft, now the U.S. Attorney General. Youth Services opened its first program on a college campus, at Southeast Missouri State University, under Ashcroft's administration.

``We have broad political support,'' Steward said. ``Conservatives like it from the standpoint that it's good for public safety.''

Many who end up in Missouri's Division of Youth Services already have gone through locally run military-style boot camps or languished in county juvenile lock-ups where they were confined in cells 23 hours a day.

``That just made us worse,'' said Keith, the 17-year-old who had transferred to Riverbend. ``This made us change.''

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Old 10-25-2004, 05:48 PM
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I find this article very interesting as it implies that all Missouri youth offenders have this same opportunity. This is not so. My son had been 18 for one month and was sentenced in a small town on a first time offense wherein there was no physical harm or damage done to any person or object. Never was this mentioned as an alternative for him. No, instead my son was given a sentence equal to the amount of time he was alive. That's right he got an 18 year sentence that was made out to be a violent offense so he has to do 85% of the time before he is eligible for parole. He's been in prsion for over 6 years now with the most violent offenders due to the amount of time the judge gave him. He still has 10 more years to do before he can get paroled. Now tell me how soft does Missouri seem now. And before you think my son is an exception, let me tell you this is not so. You would be surprised at how many young people go to the prison system and become institutionalized needlessly.

Remember people any young person that goes to prison is almost guaranteed to be raped and abused by other inmates and guards. Yes, I said GUARDS. But tell me what can you do about it, nothing. Who is going to believe an inmate over a guard? These kids often have already had more than their share of abuse before they go to prison. Then the state takes them into their care and continues the abuse leaving them with little options. Anyone ever check the suicide rate or suicide attempt rate for those under 21 in Missouri prisons? I'd just about bet that those in the prison system not the alternative sentencing programs, but the hardcore system they put these kids in with others doing life sentences. My son is one of them. And yes he would be included in the statistics as a suicide attempt. Thank God he didn't succeed, but from what I was told it was close. Did the courts care enough to get him medical treatment? NO. He was thrown in an isolation cell by himself and did not receive any food for 3 days. When he asked for a clean jumpsuit, he was told, "It's your blood, wear it" All of this during a time that I had no idea how to get to him. My phone bill was so high that MCI, our least favorite phone carrier, decided to put a block on the phone leaving my son to think perhaps I didn't want him in my life any more. Tell me where was this softer approach for my son? He still is going through the abuse at the hands of the Missouri Department of Corrections. And there is little a mom can do about it.

Sorry if I'm not exactly thrilled with the implications of the programs in this article. It wasn't there for my son, and it has also let many others in his shoes down. This is my perspective. I wish I could hail praises to the article and the progam, but it wasn't an option for us.
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