There are no handcuffs, no razor-wire fences, no uniforms, no cells, in Missouri’s revamped youth corrections system, reports the Los Angeles Times. Inmates, referred to as “kids,” live in dorms that feature beanbag chairs, potted plants, stuffed animals, and bunk beds with smiley-face comforters. Guards – who are called “youth specialists” and must have college degrees – go by first names and offer hugs. At a maximum-security lockup in St. Joseph, the state’s toughest teenage offenders explore the roots of their anger, weep over the acts of abusive parents, and swap strategies for breaking free of gangs. At a facility in Kansas City, boys who rack up months of good behavior earn the right to attend summer basketball camp. “The old corrections model was a failure; most kids left us worse off than when they came in,” said Mark Steward, chief of Missouri’s youth penal system. “So we threw away that culture, and now we focus on treatment, on making connections with these guys and showing them another way…. It works.”
“Missouri is the best model we have out there,” said Paul DeMuro, a New Jersey-based juvenile justice consultant and former chief of youth prisons in Pennsylvania. Barry Krisberg, president of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, says, “It works because they believe in the ‘small is beautiful’ theory. It’s about high-quality treatment in an intimate setting.” A recent study found that of the 1,400 teenagers Missouri released in 1999, only 8 percent wound up in adult prisons. Missouri spends about $43,000 a year per child; California’s per capita tab is nearly twice that – $80,000 – largely because of personnel costs. Not one young inmate has committed suicide in the two decades since Missouri altered its approach. In the California Youth Authority, 15 have killed themselves since 1996. Corrections officials from around the nation are visiting Missouri for a closer look. Several states, including Louisiana, Georgia, Maryland, New Jersey, and Illinois, have launched or are considering copycat programs.