Saturday, December 29, 2007

MO Scores Again

Great, great, great AP story on MO's successful and model juvenile justice approach that smart states (both of them) would do well to emulate. It's always interesting to watch the flows of come together in special ways occasionally to make a state a leader in something good, for a while anyway. WI had "The Wisconsin Way" once, VA gets there in management regularly still, WA has its precedent-setting Institute for Public Policy, CA threw its model education system away in the name of lower taxes and locking up everybody and his brother. Right now, there's no state doing more and better than MO, and I'm not just saying that because I went to school there, my son was born there, he went to school there and still lives there, and MU's going to kick Arkansas' butt on New Year's . . . . sorry. Just read the article and you see what I mean. Here are a few teasers:

With prisons around the country filled to bursting, and with states desperate for ways 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, large, prison-style "gladiator schools" have been abandoned in favor of 42 community-based centers spread 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, not unlike a scout troop. Barring outbursts, they're rarely separated: They go to classes together, play basketball together, eat together, and bunk in communal "cottages." Evenings, they attend therapy and counseling sessions as a group.

Missouri doesn't set timetables for release; children stay until they demonstrate a fundamental shift in character — a policy that detainees say gives kids an added incentive to take the program seriously.

Those who are let out don't go unwatched: 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. California's rates are similar.)

_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 figures from 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 the best juvenile rehabilitation system in America.

"This isn't rocket science," Steward says. "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."
Many states are trying to bring down high rates of repeat offending by juveniles.

Wisconsin now treats some repeat offenders with mental health counselors in hospitals, instead of corrections officers in jails.

Illinois offers them drug treatment, job placement — or an expedited return to custody.

And Washington state targets kids at risk of becoming its most serious offenders with early, intensive anger-management, drug and family 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 per child. Programs that tried to scare kids into living a clean life were money losers, according to the study, conducted by the Washington State Institute for Public Policy.

Missouri employs similar carrot-and-stick techniques. But it takes rehabilitation one step further by normalizing the environments of children in custody, says Barry Krisberg, president of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, a nonprofit based in Oakland, Calif.

"It's a pretty simple concept: 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.
It had tried the traditional approach: From 1887 to 1983, young offenders from truants to attempted murderers were confined either at the Boonville Training School for Boys, or the Chillicothe Training School for Girls.

Boonville warehoused 650 boys, most of them minorities, in grim, two-story brick structures. There was rape and other brutality by guards, and a solitary confinement room atop the facility's administration building known as "The Hole," until judges demanded its closure.

"You had rural, white staff with inner-city kids of color, thrown in together with kids from all across the state who were disconnected from their families and neighborhoods," recalls Steward, the former director of youth services. "It wasn't a terribly successful formula."

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 systemwide 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. "They've seen that this is not a left-right issue. In many ways, its a commonsense issue."

A common-cents issue, too — since it costs states between $100 and $300 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 of its juvenile rehabilitation program is $130 a day.

"The fact is that most kids from punitive states get out, get re-arrested, and get thrown back into correctional facilities," Krisberg says. "What amazes me is that taxpayers in these punitive states put up with such rates of failure."

Miriam Rollin, vice president at Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, a nonprofit in Washington, D.C., with a membership of 3,500 police officials, prosecutors and crime victims, agrees:

"Twenty years ago, people threw up their hands and said, 'We don't know what works.' But now, we actually do know ... We're just not doing it — or not doing enough of it."

We know "what works" adult-wise, too, but most of us are too silly to adopt it. Except MO is taking the lead there, too, with evidence-based policy and data for judges. All it takes is one state to be so overwhelmingly and undeniably successful that even the biggest lunkhead policymakers can't resist. The good money's on MO.

(In the Cotton Bowl, too.)

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