In Praise of the Missouri Model

By way of an explanation for the paucity of posts of late: I spent the last week of the year on vacation and much of yesterday returning to New York and catching up at work. Today, it’s back to the grind. Welcome, 2008!

I didn’t spend a whole lot of time combing through news sites over the holiday–a vacation, in my opinion, includes some healthy distance from the daily news cycle–but I did try to keep tabs on important developments. The most interesting and relevant piece I spotted, at least as far as this blog is concerned, ran on December 29: it’s a long story by AP reporter Todd Lewan on the pioneering model of Missouri’s juvenile justice system, the last in a series on JJ reforms (I wrote about two earlier stories in the series here and here).

As many people know, when it comes to juvenile justice reform in the United States, Missouri’s approach is sui generis. In the early ’90s, when many states were just beginning to experiment with punitive policies toward young offenders that essentially disregarded their status as juveniles and locked them up as if they were adult criminals–the consequences of which we’re dealing with on many fronts today–Missouri was headed in the other direction with a treatment-oriented approach where, as Lewan writes, “troubled kids are rehabilitated in small, homelike settings that stress group therapy and personal development over isolation and punishment.”

Rather than serve out a sentence of predetermined length, young inmates in Missouri “stay until they demonstrate a fundamental shift in character.” With a low staff-to-ward ratio (1 to 5), a team of qualified counselors on hand, an emphasis on education and personal growth, and aggressive after-care that includes therapy referrals, employment assistance and continued drug/alcohol treatment, the state boasts a high degree of success. Not only does Missouri spend less per offender than many states (about $130 per day, compared with as much as $300 elsewhere), but it has shown remarkably low recidivism rates, as well. About 8.6 percent of Missouri teens who complete the program are locked up as adults within three years; compare that number to New York’s rearrest rate (75 percent; 42 percent for violent felonies). Same goes for California. And what about Texas, where officials recently scoffed at the suggestion that the state could replace its awful network of juvenile prisons with a new system following Missouri’s lead? Well, “last  year, 7.3 percent of teen offenders released from Missouri’s youth facilities were recommitted to juvenile centers for new offenses,” Lewan writes. “Texas, which spends about 20 percent more to keep a child in juvenile corrections, has a recidivism rate that tops 50 percent.”

But is a cuddly, group-home setting really appropriate for offenders who have demonstrated the potential for seriously violent behavior? Consider Josh Stroder, who, Lewan reports, was arrested at 15 and charged with twelve crimes, including terrorism–he built and detonated a bomb that blew off the door of an appellate judge’s home, and a car bomb was found in his basement. Before coming to the Montgomery City group home, he had spent five months in Dexter City jail, so Stroder  is in a unique position to compare the impact of these two different approaches. In a jail cell the size of a shoebox, Stroder told Lewan, “there’s really nothing to challenge you, nothing to stimulate you. It becomes easy to succomb to apathy, bitterness, or whatever is boiling in your brain.” In Montgomery, on the other hand, “you are faced with the possibility of reconciliation with so many people, and forgiveness. I was expecting a treatment program, but not so intense–not the way it is here. I expected maybe to crack the surface of the ice, but not to go in so deep.”

“It’s a pretty simple concept,” explains Barry Krisberg, a noted juvenile justice expert based in California. “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.”

“This isn’t rocket science,” adds Mark Steward, the grand poobah of Missouri’s juvenile justice system, who headed the program from 1987 to 2005. “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.”

Nor, unfortunately, are many states giving it to them. This is untenable, not to mention supremely un-smart. The early ’90s crackdown on juvenile crime has by now brought many state systems to the brink of crisis; if current trends continue, other states are likely to follow. The Missouri model offers the best route away from this dead-end road.

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