Crime and Punishment Juvenile Justice

GANG REHAB I: Missouri Gets it Right


(photo from Joseph Rodriguez book, Juvenile)

For the past month (with a brief break or two to obsess about wildfires,
and to meet other deadlines) I’ve been thinking about what it takes to get a kid or a young adult away from gangs. I’ve been doing so in the context of writing a new introduction and epilogue for an updated version of my book about Father Greg Boyle and the gangs of the Pico Aliso housing projects. (As you may remember, that’s what got me digging through circa 1991, 1992 photos, some of which I posted here.)

The process of doing a second (in 2004), and now a third version (2008) of a book that was originally published in 1994 has led me, sheerly by accident, into what has now become a back door longitudinal study of around three dozen homeboys and homegirls over a period that, to date, spans nearly seventeen years.

In future weeks and months,
I’ll post about some of the patterns I’ve observed in the course of the latest incarnation of this project. But, in the meantime, it was heartening to find in Sunday’s New York Times a short, but very smart editorial about an approach that many of us have long seen as a big part of the answer to the question of what is wrong with America’s juvenile justice system, and what might be changed in order to set things right. Specifically they wrote about a juvenile corrections system that is known in criminal justice circles as the “Missouri model.”

The Times has done a good job of distilling what is working in Missouri, so let me first just quote from them directly.

With the prisons filled to bursting, state governments are desperate for ways to keep more people from committing crimes and ending up behind bars. Part of the problem lies in the juvenile justice system, which is doing a frighteningly effective job of turning nonviolent childhood offenders into mature, hardened criminals. States that want to change that are increasingly looking to Missouri, which has turned its juvenile justice system into a nationally recognized model of how to deal effectively with troubled children.

The country as a whole went terribly wrong in this area during the 1990s, when high-profile crimes prompted dire predictions of teenage “superpredators” taking over the streets. The monsters never materialized. In fact, juvenile crime declined. But by the close of the decade, four-fifths of the states had made a regular practice of housing children, even those who committed nonviolent crimes, in adult jails. Studies now show that those children were considerably more likely to become serious criminals — and to commit violence — than children handled through the juvenile justice system.

But all juvenile justice systems are not created equal. Most children taken into custody are committed to large, unruly and often dangerous “kiddie prisons” that very much resemble adult prisons. The depravity and brutality that characterizes these places were underscored in Texas, where allegations of sexual abuse by workers prompted wholesale firings and a reorganization of the state’s juvenile justice agency.

Missouri has abandoned mass kiddie prisons in favor of small community-based centers that stress therapy, not punishment. When possible, young people are kept near their homes so their parents can participate in rehabilitation that includes extensive family therapy. It is the first stable, caring environment many of these young people have ever known. Case managers typically handle 15 to 20 children. In other state systems, the caseloads can get much higher.

A couple of weeks ago, when I spoke to one of the administrators
for LA County’s probation system, he grumbled that LA’s juvenile probation officers typically see over a hundred kids per week. “When we’re able to drop the numbers on their caseload, he said, we see fewer kids coming back to us.” And when the county starts cutting funding and the caseload numbers go back up, so do the recidivism figures, he said. It’s that clear cut.

In Missouri, notes the NY Times, the case managers follow kids closely for many months, and step in to help with “job placement, therapy referrals, school issues and drug or alcohol treatment.” As a consequence, only around 10 percent of the kids who come through their program only return to the system.

While in California about 130,000 kids are released annually from state and county juvenile justice facilities. According to the state’s own statistics, 70 percent of those kids will be arrested within two years. Certainly, California and Missouri are different states with different challenges. But the bottom line is that Missouri’s method is making a positive difference in the lives of the majority of the kids it incarcerates. California’s system seems too often to either do nothing, or to make them worse.

A law-and-order state, Missouri was working against its own nature when it embarked on this project about 25 years ago. But with favorable data piling up, and thousands of young lives saved, the state is now showing the way out of the juvenile justice crisis.

What the NY Times doesn’t exactly spell out is the fact that the Missouri model
isn’t some plan to coddle underage criminals. Nor is it isn’t for the faint of heart. At its core, the Missouri approach operates on the premise that a kid is only going to make big changes in his or her behavior, changes that stick over time, only when he or she confronts the often painful dysfunctions and emotional wounds in the past and likely in the family, that led the kid to commit a crime.

This is not easy work, and it can only be done in an environment that is safe and secure. But it pays off—both in terms of future dollars NOT spent to arrest, try and incarcerate our nation’s kids, and in terms of future lives no longer lost.


PS: While we’re on the subject of crime and solutions, check out the story in this morning’s LA Times about how a special Sheriff’s Department task force is targeting gang members’ illegal firearms in Compton, but not sweating the small stuff, and how the city’s murder rate seems to be plummeting as a result of the strategy.


  • Coincidentally, this morning I heard a story on KCBS radio about the 20th anniversary of the founding of the Omega Boys Club, which works to steer kids away from gangs in the Bay Area.

  • Upon Missouri or any other touchy touchy huggy-hug-a-thug social service orientated State or City wishing to adopt our gangmembers, their families, and their disfunctional problems….please contact us – Los Angeles County tax paying residents – we are willing to pay for travel expenses and a sandwich bag.

  • Success at less Cost

    It is not surprising to find that the centralized “Youth Program” failure in California costs 30% to 70% more that the de-centralized “Youth Program” in Missouri which is very successful.

    Also important to note is Steward’s comments about the staff:

    “If you don’t have good people, then you absolutely have to get rid of them,” he says. “You can’t hesitate. One bad person can poison a team.” …

    Though all have college degrees in counseling or psychology, they are nonetheless required to update their skills yearly with intensive training. Because division administrators don’t work directly in treatment centers, they are required to spend several hours each week among kids at nearby facilities.

  • Well, it didn’t help that liberals mocked the “Just say no” campaign. If they don’t start something, they try to make sure that it fails. Think how many kids would have been helped if this message was impressed on them, so that they could stand up to peer pressure, but never heard the message or were told to not take it seriously.

  • Celeste writes …
    PS: While we’re on the subject of crime and solutions, check out the story in this morning’s LA Times about how a special Sheriff’s Department task force is targeting gang members’ illegal firearms in Compton, but not sweating the small stuff, and how the city’s murder rate seems to be plummeting as a result of the strategy.

    The reason murders went down in Compton is because gang cops arrested more gang members. Los Angeles still has fewer cops than any large city.

    We need to have a multi-faceted approach to solving gang problems
    1) Arrest all gang members over the age of 17 and make sure they have no communication to gang members on the street. Ship them all to the Dakota plains or Arizona desert.
    2) Immediate death penalties for gang members who are convicted of crimes such as the killing of the baby in Westlake area of Los Angeles. Or intimidating witnesses to such crimes.,1,6868551.story?

    3) Provide good school systems in the inner-cities and educate the younger knuckleheads.
    4) Start mass deportation of any immigrant kid and his family who even talks to any gang member. We already have enough problems of our own making to solve.
    5) Mandatory serialization for any parents whose kids are gang members. This is a guaranteed way to stop the multi-generational gang members.
    6) Arrest any manufacturer or distributor of clothes, books, magazines, web-sites, music and movies which mention or glamorize a thug or gang lifestyle.
    7) Show daily news footage, of the worst of the gang members locked up in solitary confinement at super-max prisons to the young knuckle-heads. Maybe even a free day in the “hole” for any kid associating with nefarious characters.

    Since we waited so long and let this problem spread all over this country and even other countries, any other approach is really just a band-aid for a terminal cancer. And who said I was bleeding heart liberal?

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