Fixing the time in youth crime: Long, harsh sentences not seen as way to rehabilitate

Published: Monday, Feb. 20 2012 9:00 p.m. MST

Missouri, like Utah, closed its statewide youth prisons in the 1980s. Now, the most egregious offenders are placed in dormitory settings with no more than 50 beds. These regional facilities — 42 in all — are smaller and more homelike. They are peppered throughout the state so family doesn't have to travel long distances to visit. The children's daily activities center around education and therapeutic interventions.

The program's results are impressive. A full 93 percent of Missouri's offenders avoid further prison time for at least three years after release. Close to 70 percent avoid any system involvement at all.

While some movers and shakers in juvenile justice reform have labeled Missouri's program "a miracle," Tim Decker, director of the Missouri Division of Youth Services, maintains it is simply a matter of "having the right focus."

"We've traded coercion, threats and punishment for a model of structure, development and healthy relationships," he said. "Our organizational culture is based on the idea that people desire to do well. We don't think the kids want to screw up their lives and become lifelong criminals. We believe young people want to be successful."

During the past decade, Decker has hosted representatives from more than 30 states that are in the process of downsizing their juvenile justice programs.

"Every state would be better off if their juvenile corrections system was more like Missouri's," Lubow said.

But he argues locking up a child should be a last resort.

"Do I think all the kids in Missouri's facilities need to be there? I would argue they don't," he said.

The majority of America's incarcerated children are locked up for property offenses, public order offenses, drug offenses and technical violations of parole, according to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. Just 26 percent are jailed for violent crimes like aggravated assault, robbery, homicide and rape.

"Many of these kids could be in community-based intervention programs that get equally good, if not better results," Lubow said.

The key, according to Shay Bilchik, founder and director of the Center for Juvenile Justice Reform at Georgetown University, is figuring out which children need to be locked up and which children would be best served at home.

The Center for Juvenile Justice Reform has spent the last several years developing a tool that could help jurisdictions scientifically assess children's risks and needs and place the right kids in the right programs. In tests, researchers used the tool to identify weaknesses in treatment plans, tweaked the programs and were able to improve individual outcomes. Last fall, the center launched the program, called the Juvenile Justice System Improvement Project, in Arizona, Connecticut, Florida and Pennsylvania.

As the nation moves away from the mass incarceration of youth, it is vital that states develop good alternatives for juvenile offenders, Bilchik said.

"A lot of places are cutting back on institutionalization and saving a lot of money," he said. "That's great, but they need to be investing some of that money into developing good community options. You can't just dump the kids."

In New York, the governor has given Schiraldi $41 million of the state's savings to develop a local solution to juvenile delinquency. In addition to its home-based programs, like the one Garcia participated in, Schiraldi is looking into day-camp options, a mentoring program and family therapy.

But in Utah, budget cuts have steered the state away from beefing up alternatives for incarceration, said Susan Burke, director of the Division of Juvenile Justice. In fact, if proposed budget cuts go through, she will have to cut programs. While incarceration rates dropped in 34 states between 1997 and 2007, Utah's rate increased by about 14 percent, according to the Office of Juvenile Delinquency Prevention.

"We know the value of these community-based programs, but we cannot close down a facility as easily as we can make incremental cuts," she said.

So, for now, while the rest of the nation wrestles with juvenile justice reform, life for Utah's youngest offenders will remain much the same.

"At least," remarked on offender taking a break from English class on a recent Monday, "the food is good."

EMAIL: estuart@desnews.com, TWITTER: elizMstuart

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