Missouri turns around troubled teens with homelike settings

? At age 9, Korey Davis came home from school with gang writing on his arm. At 10, he jacked his first car. At 13, he and some buddies got guns, used them to relieve a man of his Jeep, and later, while trying to outrun a police helicopter, smacked their hot wheels into a fire hydrant.

For his exploits, Davis pulled not only a 15-year sentence but got “certified” as an adult offender and shipped off to the St. Louis City workhouse to inspire a change of heart.

It didn’t have the desired effect.

“I wasn’t wanting to listen to nobody,” says Korey, now 19. “If you wasn’t my momma, or anybody in my family, I wasn’t gonna listen to you, period.”

Most states would have written Korey off and begun shuttling him from one adult prison to the next, where he likely would have sat in sterile cells, joined a gang, and spent his days and nights plotting his next crime.

But this is Missouri, where teen offenders are viewed not just as inmates but as works in progress – where troubled kids are rehabilitated in small, homelike settings that stress group therapy and personal development over isolation and punishment.

With prisons around the country filled to bursting, and with states looking to bring down recidivism rates that rise to 70 and 80 percent, some policymakers are taking a fresh look at treatment-oriented approaches like Missouri’s as a way out of America’s juvenile justice crisis.

Here, prison-style “gladiator schools” have been replaced by 42 community-based centers spread around the state so that now, even parents of inner-city offenders can easily visit their children and participate in family therapy.

Missouri doesn’t set timetables for release, a policy that detainees say gives kids an added incentive to take the program seriously.

The results?

¢ About 8.6 percent of teens who complete Missouri’s program are incarcerated in adult prisons within three years of release, according to 2006 figures. (In New York, 75 percent are re-arrested as adults, 42 percent for a violent felony.)

¢ Last year, 7.3 percent of teen offenders released from Missouri’s youth facilities were recommitted to juvenile centers for new offenses. Texas, which spends about 20 percent more to keep a child in juvenile corrections, has a recidivism rate that tops 50 percent.

Does this “law-and-order” state know something others don’t?

Hardly, says Mark Steward, who, as director of the state’s Division of Youth Services from 1987 to 2005, oversaw the development of what many experts regard as the best juvenile rehabilitation system in America.

Says Steward: “It’s about giving young people structure, and love and attention, and not allowing them to hurt themselves or other people. Pretty basic stuff, really. It’s just that a lot of these kids haven’t gotten the basic stuff.”

One step further

Many states are trying to bring down high rates of repeat offending by juveniles.

Wisconsin now treats some repeat offenders with mental health counselors. Illinois offers them drug treatment, job placement. And Washington state targets kids at risk of becoming its most serious offenders with early, intensive anger-management, drug and family therapy.

Missouri, though takes rehabilitation one step further by normalizing the environments of children in custody, says Barry Krisberg, president of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

“The more normal the environment, the more likely these young people will be able to return home and not be sucked into a criminal subculture,” he says.

Montgomery City, built for Missouri’s worst juvenile offenders, could be mistaken for a college campus.

In a literature class, students analyze plot lines in “A Farewell to Arms.” In a computer lab, they write resumes. In a central courtyard, they celebrate “Victim Empathy Week” by huddling in a circle with lit candles and praying for their victims.

The cottages where they sleep resemble college dorms, with one notable difference: These are immaculate.

Ten teens are assigned to a cottage. Each gets a bed with quilt, pillow, nightstand, and an understood “space.” In this space are often collected the precious remnants of a truncated childhood: dream catchers, stuffed animals, Dr. Seuss books.

“When you walk into these facilities and see 17- and 18-year-olds with dolls on their pillows, that’s when it hits you: ‘Hey, these really are just kids,”‘ says Ned Loughran, executive director of the Council of Juvenile Correctional Administrators.

Some things you won’t see in this detention center: razor wire, barred windows, uniformed guards, billyclubs, or kids in orange jumpsuits with broken noses.

Treatment comes in “group builders” – sessions in which detainees open up to one another about traumas, crimes and family conflicts that have scarred them. Kids can also call a “circle,” in which team members stand and face each other to air grievances, fears, anguish.

Two staff specialists sit in on the circles, but the kids generally run them. Teams that interact more are rewarded – day furloughs to visit family, fishing trips, an afternoon volunteering at a food bank. Those who pull against the program find themselves pressured by their peers to shape up.

A softer approach

A half hour west of Montgomery City, in the university town of Fulton, there is a house that looks just right for a summer camp.

Inside are comfy sofas, bookcases holding trophies, vases full of flowers, and 11 girls, ranging in age from 12 to 17, who’ve been convicted of truancy, assault, drug crimes, theft and forgery.

This is the Rosa Parks Center, a detention home on the campus of William Woods University. Here, the girls get counseling, schooling, a feeling of togetherness.

“I had a lot of problems being angry,” says Brooklyn Schaller, 15, who was arrested on drug charges and for violating a parental curfew. “I would be aggressive. I didn’t care about anyone else, or anything else.” But after just a year, even she has noticed a change.

What’s been the difference?

Good role models help: The girls get to mingle with college students in the campus dining hall and attend campus plays and other cultural events. At the start of the school year they describe their experiences to incoming students during orientation week.

Rosa Parks Center opened in 2001, part of Missouri’s response to the notion – resurrected about a decade ago – that it might be worthwhile to punish teen offenders by locking them up in adult prisons or in remote, sprawling juvenile prisons.

Missouri had already tried that. From 1887 to 1983, young offenders were confined either at the Boonville Training School for Boys, or the Chillicothe Training School for Girls.

Boonville warehoused 650 boys in grim, two-story structures. There was rape and other brutality by guards.

Which is why conservatives such as John Ashcroft, the former Missouri senator and U.S. attorney general, and state Supreme Court Justice Stephen Limbaugh joined with liberals such as the late Gov. Mel Carnahan to stick by systemwide reforms initiated in the late 1970s.

“What is remarkable about Missouri’s system is that is has been sustained by conservative and liberal governments,” says Krisberg, of the national crime and delinquency council. “In many ways, it’s a common sense issue.”