by EMILY RAMSHAW
The Dallas Morning News
December 15, 2007
MONTGOMERY CITY, Mo. – Frank Ewell was headed for prison at 16, a Kansas City gang banger tried and convicted as an adult for an armed home invasion.
But instead of an institutional lock-up, he was sent to a residential treatment center for youth run by the Missouri juvenile justice system.
There, instead of a clinical cot, he lives in dorm-like quarters. Velour sweatsuits and designer sneakers replace state-issued jumpsuits. And the 11 young men with whom he eats, sleeps, counsels and cries are his partners in recovery, not a threat to his safety.
It’s a juvenile justice model that national experts say has turned Missouri’s state system from an abuse-ridden institutional nightmare to an industry gold standard for juvenile rehabilitation.
States across the country have taken note. Rarely a week goes by that Missouri officials aren’t playing host to touring juvenile justice advocates or advising on proposed pilots in Louisiana, Washington, D.C., New Mexico or California.
But it is a model the Texas Youth Commission is not embracing.
For some Texas officials, it’s just not the right time. For others, it’s too dramatic a change and simply not punitive enough.
“The youth who are [incarcerated] in Texas, the court sent them here to restrict their behavior,” said Dimitria Pope, TYC’s acting executive director. “These are kids who have cut off their angel wings. This is a corrections environment.”
Juvenile justice advocates say Texas’ youth corrections system, although standard in many states, breeds hardened, angrier and more experienced criminals – not the type of young people the system should be returning to the community.
In Missouri, “when kids exit back into the community, they’ve developed as independent, autonomous, healthy young people,” said Sarah Bryer, director of the National Juvenile Justice Network. “You want kids to maintain the supportive connections with their families, their communities – the places and people they’re going back to.”
Missouri incarcerates a quarter of the juvenile inmates that Texas does. Youth live in intimate groups no larger than 12, as close to their families as possible. Most of the 3,200 youth in Texas’ custody live in secure institutions with up to 600 beds, often in remote locations hundreds of miles from home.
Missouri has two college-educated youth specialists for every 12 offenders. In Texas, there’s one – a juvenile corrections officer with a criminal background check.
And Missouri’s system is cheaper; the average annual cost per youth – $44,000 – is about $12,000 less than in Texas.
Juvenile justice officials say the statistics speak to Missouri’s success.
Since 2006, Missouri has had 57 allegations of abuse and neglect, two of which were confirmed. In the last year alone, Texas had more than 2,800 allegations, 327 of which were confirmed.
In Missouri, nearly 9 percent of youth are sentenced to adult prison within three years of their release. In Texas, more than 50 percent are.
“We abide by the theory that you get back what you give to them,” said Tom Breedlove, deputy director of the Missouri Division of Youth Services. “If you institutionalize them, you disable them. We are their surrogate family, and we treat them like it.”
Some experts caution against holding Missouri up as the nation’s best. Texas’ juvenile justice system was once considered a national model, too, before this year’s sexual and physical abuse scandal turned the TYC into a national embarrassment.
A month before the scandal broke in February, TYC administrators bragged to lawmakers about visits from international media and documentary filmmakers. Four months earlier, Texas Monthly magazine had published a lengthy and laudatory article on the effectiveness of TYC’s capital offender program.
Dr. Jeffrey Butts, a juvenile justice expert at the University of Chicago, said some states have simply learned how to market themselves.
“Missouri’s better than most, but the best?” he said. “Let’s put it this way: If I had a 16-year-old, I’d much rather have them in Missouri than in Texas.”
A life-saving experience
As his release from the Montgomery City Youth Center approaches, Mr. Ewell, now 20, can’t imagine being anywhere else.
In the last three years he’s earned the first high school diploma in his family. He’s played point guard on the facility’s championship basketball team. And he’s stage-directed the campus production of 12 Angry Men – a description, he jokes, that no longer applies to him.
“I came in just mad at the world,” Mr. Ewell says, cuddling his pet lizard in a dorm lined with NFL pennants, action figures and stuffed animals. “This place, it saved my life. Honestly.”
Young men at the facility read poems and light candles or wear special bracelets to honor their victims. They plant trees dedicated to their personal growth.
Other Missouri youth facilities also embrace a friendly atmosphere.
At the Cornerstone group home in Columbia, adolescents in saggy jeans and giant hooded sweatshirts build gingerbread houses for relatives as they eye Christmas presents under a twinkling tree.
At a high-security treatment center in Fulton, youth with sprawling tattoos and faces full of piercings pursue their GEDs on flat-screen computers, hold their parents’ hands in family counseling sessions and run rope courses in the woods off campus.
At the Rosa Parks girls’ center nearby, teenagers dance to workout videos, decorate their bunks with magazine cut-outs and bake cakes in the facility’s tiny kitchen for every holiday or baby’s birthday.
Days start early and end late for all youth in the Missouri system. They are crammed with school, therapy, peer counseling and intensive behavioral sessions; treatment never stops. At any time, all 12 youths may be called into a mentoring circle or asked to help physically restrain a peer who is out of control.
And though campuses give the illusion of freedom – there are no razor-wire fences or bars on the windows – the kids are never alone and always locked behind a closed door. Nor do they get a free ride. There are no janitors on campus; youths are responsible for sweeping and cleaning, maintaining the grounds and doing their own laundry.
“My home life was always an aggressive environment – yelling and fighting were the only ways to get points across,” says Brooklyn Schaller, a chatty, shaggy-haired 16-year-old who was admitted to the Rosa Parks center for repeated alcohol and drug abuse. “Here, I’m safe. I don’t cry much anymore. It’s like living in a house with a bunch of sisters.”
Small is key
“Safe” wasn’t always a word that described Missouri’s juvenile justice system.
At mid-century, the state operated two youth prisons with hundreds of beds – one for girls, another for boys. But Missouri’s “training school” system hit the skids in the 1960s, when rapes, suicides, lockdowns and rampant violence kept even the most disciplinarian judges from sending youth offenders there.
“If you were to just design a system to fail, that’s what we had,” said Mark Steward, who led Missouri’s reform movement throughout the ’70s and ’80s. “You had inner-city kids with rural staff that couldn’t relate. There was a brutal relationship between guards and youth. They were, quite frankly, the very typical prison-like facilities so many states unfortunately still run.”
State leaders, realizing the existing model wasn’t working, approved a pilot program with Mr. Steward as their first counselor, and it worked. Over the next 15 years, Missouri renovated everything from old middle schools to vacant convents, creating small group homes for juvenile offenders in urban communities. Eventually, the state handed over the old training schools to the adult prison system.
It’s a strategy juvenile justice experts say could work in Texas – even without closing large institutions. The key is to separate the youth into groups no larger than 12, they say, which makes the recovery process personal, comfortable and safe.
“Small facilities can be created out of big facilities,” said Ms. Bryer of the Washington, D.C.-based Juvenile Justice Network. “We don’t need to be spending more money on bricks and mortar.”
But Mr. Steward said Texas doesn’t seem to be interested – despite his trip to Austin in February to meet with state judges, lawmakers and members of Gov. Rick Perry’s staff. “I thought it made sense to them,” he said. “But I haven’t seen any movement.”
Copyright Dallas Morning News