(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.