Many of Missouri’s hard-core young criminals eventually end up a locked-down institution. In most states, says the New Orleans Times-Picayune, that would mean walking into the stark surroundings and often brutal atmosphere of an adult penitentiary. But Missouri’s Northwestern Regional Youth Center resembles a summer camp or a college dorm. There’s no razor wire, no cells, no uniforms for either staff or inmates. In the bedrooms, bunk beds are personalized with stuffed animals that “bring out the inner child,” said Sergio Guillen, 15, a former gang member who has been at the center for about 10 months and now gives tours to visitors.
Mark Steward, the director of Missouri’s Division of Youth Services, said the pleasant, home-like environment is not about coddling criminals. Instead, he said, it is an integral part of rehabilitating young offenders, getting the teenagers to face what they have done and begin to change. This is the model of juvenile justice that Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco wants to import to the Bayou State. Dozens of Louisiana officials have gone to Missouri to look at its system. The emphasis in Missouri’s programs is on creating “positive peer pressure,” with the young people spending all of their time in the same group of 10 or so youths, working together with trained staff to talk through their problems. “The piece of Missouri that was so striking to me was the level of discourse between the kids and the staff,” said Simon Gonsoulin, who heads the Louisiana Office of Youth Services, One report tracking Missouri youths over four years found that 8 percent of about 1,300 young offenders who were released from custody in 1999 had been sentenced to an adult prison and that about 7 percent were sent back to the juvenile system for new offenses committed after release.
In Louisiana, about 43 percent of the roughly 5,400 youths released in 1999 returned to either the adult or juvenile justice system.