Potential model for Maryland

December 13, 2004|By Greg Garland | Greg Garland,SUN STAFF

ST. LOUIS - Smack in the middle of a blighted neighborhood of boarded-up houses, littered alleys and other pockmarks of urban decay, some of this Midwestern city's toughest kids are learning how to turn their lives around.

On the streets, they committed such crimes as rape, armed robbery, carjacking and home invasion - offenses that got them sent by the courts to the state-run Hogan Street Regional Youth Center.

The atmosphere inside the aging brick building, once a parochial school, is a far cry from that found in juvenile facilities in most states, including Maryland. The youths live in dorms, not cells. They wear their own clothes, not uniforms. And they move about freely, supervised by college-educated counselors who are more like mentors than guards.

"Our whole program is geared to what would you want for your own children," said Mark Steward, who is head of Missouri's Division of Youth Services.

Missouri's gentler approach to dealing with troubled teens has met with an unusual degree of success, winning accolades from national experts on youth crime.

Far fewer of the juvenile offenders who go through Missouri's system go on to commit crimes that land them in adult prison than is the case elsewhere, studies show.

That track record has attracted attention from a dozen states, including Maryland, where officials have dispatched delegations to examine Missouri's methods.

Steward said the key is to create a homelike environment in which youngsters feel safe - emotionally and physically - and to have a well-trained cadre of counselors who work with them intensively.

Communities are poorly served by sticking juvenile offenders in "prison-type environments" that are run like slightly modified versions of adult jails, he said.

To those who would argue that Missouri's approach is too "feel-good, soft on crime," Steward has this response: It works, and it saves taxpayer dollars in the long run.

One study compiled in 2003 showed that just 8 percent of the 1,386 teens released from state custody in Missouri in 1999 were sentenced to state prison in the next three years. That compares with a 30 percent rate in Maryland.

And Missouri's approach doesn't cost any more than Maryland's, which is widely criticized. Missouri spends about $55,000 per year to keep a youth at the Hogan Street center, while it costs Maryland about $64,000 a year to keep a youth at the Charles H. Hickey Jr. School in Baltimore County.

Missouri officials acknowledge that some youths are too violent to be accepted into the state's juvenile facilities and are sent to adult prisons instead. But Steward said such cases are uncommon, averaging fewer than five a year.

"No matter how you cut it, Missouri's numbers look good," said Bart Lubow, director of the Annie E. Casey Foundation's programs for high-risk youths.

Kids, not criminals

Richard Mendel, the author of three national reports on juvenile justice and youth crime prevention, spent a year studying Missouri's system. He believes Missouri's attitude is the main reason it has been more successful than many states in dealing with young offenders.

"I think the basic difference is that Missouri treats these kids as good kids who need some help to get their lives straightened out," he said. "Most everywhere else, they are treated as criminals."

Maryland Juvenile Services Secretary Kenneth C. Montague Jr. sent a technical team to St. Louis in September to review the state's juvenile services program and see how it might be adapted for Maryland. Montague said he had visited several of Missouri's facilities previously and was impressed.

"These were tough kids from the streets who, when they were put in the right environment ... reverted back to being children," Montague said. "What you see is a system that puts these kids in a frame of mind where you can actually help them."

About 1,350 youths ages 14 to 17 are committed each year to Missouri's juvenile system, which includes 32 state-run residential treatment facilities. Missouri has separate housing facilities for boys and girls. Hogan Street houses only boys.

At Hogan Street and elsewhere, Missouri's "spare the rod, save the child" approach places a heavy emphasis on well-trained, highly motivated youth counselors working with small "treatment groups."

About 85 percent of the staff dealing directly with teens, called "youth specialists," hold college degrees, Steward said. They get starting pay of about $24,000 to $26,000 a year - slightly more than in Maryland, which hires mostly workers with a high school degree for $23,000.

The youths' daily routine resembles that of an old-fashioned boarding school: They sleep on bunk beds in rooms of 10 to 12 youths, attend school together in the facility, and play basketball or participate in other forms of recreation.

The key difference is the treatment group sessions, where youths spend 10 to 15 hours a week. They are encouraged to talk with one another in these sessions about their fears, hopes and desires.

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