Missouri Sees Teen Offenders as Kids, Not Inmates In Missouri, juvenile offenders live in college-style dorm rooms, take classes and join in group therapy. It's part of an innovative approach toward teen offenders that focuses on rehabilitation, and the results are paying off.
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Missouri Sees Teen Offenders as Kids, Not Inmates

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Missouri Sees Teen Offenders as Kids, Not Inmates

Missouri Sees Teen Offenders as Kids, Not Inmates

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

Every year, almost 100,000 children are sent to juvenile correction facilities in the United States. Their offenses range from shoplifting to murder. Whether those young offenders are actually corrected seems to depend a lot on where they're confined.

Take Missouri and Texas, for example. The two states have very different juvenile correctional systems, and they have starkly different recidivism rates. Texas houses its young criminals in adult-style facilities. Its recidivism rate tops 50 percent. Missouri uses a treatment-oriented approach in which lockups resemble college dorms. Its recidivism rate is in the single digits.

In the first of two reports, NPR's Jason Beaubien examines the Missouri model.

JASON BEAUBIEN: At the Northwest Regional Youth Center in Kansas City, the A team is in science class. The topic for this hour is botany and roots.

Unidentified Man#1: The one on the left. The one on your right (unintelligible).

Unidentified Man#2: Let me see. Let me see. The one on your left, right here?

BEAUBIEN: The scene resembles a science classroom at any urban public high school, except for the thick screens on the windows. A tall, chain-linked fence surrounds the building, but here inside, there are few signs that these 10 teenagers are confined. They wear regular clothes and the teachers and staff are dressed casually.

Unidentified Woman: Today, we're going to talk about stems. We got two types of stems. We're on page 174 today.

BEAUBIEN: This is where Missouri sends some of its most troubled and troublesome juvenile offenders. Street thugs from St. Louis mixed with gang members from Kansas City and pint-sized, rural car thieves. Yet, there's a sense of calmness here. At lunch, the kids and the staff eat together at one, long, white table.

Tim Decker, who runs the Missouri Division of Youth Services, says the goal is for young offenders to turn their lives around and not return.

Mr. TIM DECKER (Director, Missouri Division of Youth Services): Last year, 7.3 percent of our youth who were discharged actually had new offenses that they got committed back to us for. That's a very low offense rate.

BEAUBIEN: Compare this to California, where teens leaving the California Youth Authority have at times had a 70 to 80 percent chance of getting locked up again. Decker says Missouri treats young offenders firmly, seriously and humanely.

Mr. DECKER: Our first and primary function is public safety. We have young people who've become a problem in their community and that needs to stop.

BEAUBIEN: Decker says the way to make this criminal behavior stop is to help these kids get their lives back on track.

(Soundbite of basketball game)

BEAUBIEN: The Missouri model of juvenile corrections places young offenders in small facilities where rehabilitation is the focus.

The Northwest Regional Youth Center, for instance, is an old elementary school that houses 30 teenagers, three teams of 10. Each boy here spends most of his day with nine other boys. They go to class in the same classroom, play five-on-five basketball, bunk in the same room, eat together. And in the evening, they go together to group therapy and counseling sessions.

Barry Krisberg, the president of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency in Oakland, California, praises this approach and says states with troubled juvenile corrections systems could learn from Missouri.

Mr. BARRY KRISBERG (President, National Council on Crime and Delinquency): The basic logic of youth corrections is that if you treat young people like inmates, they'll act like inmates. They'll act like prisoners. If you treat them as young people capable of being citizens, they'll much more likely act like citizens.

REGGIE (Detainee, Northwest Regional Youth Center): This is where we sleep at. Everybody got they own bunk.

BEAUBEIN: Reggie, who's 16, is showing off his bedroom. A dozen wooden bunk beds line the wall. Stuffed animals rest on the pillows on a couple of the beds. Reggie is big for 16, with tightly twisted dreadlocks that fall to his collar. He came here five months ago, but he's been in juvenile detention facilities almost continuously since he was 13.

REGGIE: The worst thing about being here right now is not seeing my family. You know, that hurt me more than anything, just to know I can't just pick up the phone and call my family, see what they're up to. I just can't go to the next room and expect my momma to be there or my sisters.

BEAUBIEN: Reggie started stealing cars with his older brother when he was only 9. When Reggie was first arrested, he couldn't read or write. Now, he's working towards his GED. He says the therapy here has made him think about how his chaotic childhood affected his life. His mother was single with eight kids. And at times, they shuttled between homeless shelters.

REGGIE: I don't have a lot of things that other kids had. I couldn't read, write or spell, so I was most like the class clown. And I think that's one of the reasons led up to me doing crime, I'm not going to put everything off on that because most of it got to do with me making the right decisions. But I also got a lot to do with that, like how I was brought up, how I was raised, how I was being treated.

BEAUBIEN: Reggie says here, he's been treated differently. Staff have helped him learn to read and write. Therapy has allowed him to let down his street-tough facade and talk about being angry and being hurt. He says he hopes eventually to go to college and become a police officer. And when he says that, people here take him seriously.

Jason Beaubien, NPR News, Kansas City.

SIEGEL: Tomorrow, Jason Beaubien reports on the Texas juvenile correction system and allegations of abuse and misconduct.

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