Nation’s Best, Experts Say of Mo. Juvenile Justice

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Andrew, a 17-year-old St. Louisan sentenced to serve time in a center for the most severe juvenile offenders, has not seen a single skirmish among its 30-plus boys in his seven months there. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports that the hours he expected to spend in a sterile cell have instead been in study and therapy in lounges that resemble family rooms and a dorm room straight out of summer camp. Andrew credits the school with helping him become class president and placing him just shy of earning his high school equivalency certificate.

The Post-Dispatch says that Missouri increasingly is being cited as running the best juvenile rehabilitation system in the nation. Dozens of officials from Illinois, Louisiana, Mississippi, Georgia and Maryland, have recently toured Missouri juvenile centers. The newspaper says 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. The state has 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. Missouri has done this while compiling one of the nation’s lowest recidivism rates.

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 inspected Missouri’s system. Louisiana’s was sued by the Justice Department in 1998. The state’s largest boys training school was so violent that investigators found dozens of serious injuries each month. Missouri offenders “still have some light in their eyes,” Cravin said. “You still see a vision there, as opposed to our system, where the lights have been dimmed.”

“It’s something Missouri can be proud of,” says Mark Soler of the San Francisco-based Youth Law Center. “It’s a legitimate big deal in juvenile justice.”

Missouri’s reforms 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.

* Day-treatment centers to help recent inmates make the transition to life outside.

* Nearly $7 million for 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.

Barry Krisberg, who heads the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, has looked at recidivism from all angles. While 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.

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