A Criminal Enterprise

Smart on Crime: A Big Week for Juvenile Justice

Posted in Uncategorized by Robert Smith on August 29, 2009

Two very different portraits of the juvenile justice system emerged this week.

Yesterday,  the San Jose Mercury News reports that California will close the Heman G. Stark Correctional Facility in Chino, which is its “largest and most notoriously  troubled youth prison.” Each youth inmate costs the state roughly $250,000 per year to house. Yet, facilities like Stark are marked with high levels of violence and low levels of mental health and other rehabilitation options. When a juvenile finally leaves Stark, he has a three in four chance at coming back to the system (74% recidivism rate). The father of a former inmate whose participation in  an armed robbery while intoxicated provided him  with admission to  Stark as a 17 year-old , had this to say to the Mercury News  about the Stark youth prison:

He “came out three years later, tattooed and in a gang, with no GED after spending 18 to 21 hours a day in his cell. He had no idea how to look for a job or cope with stress. All he had learned inside, his father said, was how to survive.”

The picture looks a little brighter in Missouri. Two days ago, CNN did a feature on the “Missouri Model” of youth corrections, and, in particular, on Terrence Barkley, who is one of the Model’s success stories. Barkley ended up in a Missouri youth facility after he got arrested for stealing cars shortly after his 16th birthday. He is currently a sophomore at the University of Central Missouri. And, as CNN reports, it wasn’t a “as punitive as possible” type approach that worked:

Barkley wasn’t scared straight. He wasn’t packed away in a crowded facility with steel bars and razor wire. He wasn’t under the constant guard of uniformed officers with billy clubs or locked down with hundreds of other juveniles. Instead, he was sent to Waverly Regional Youth Center, one of Missouri’s 32 residential facilities where he wore his jeans and T-shirts. He slept in his own bunk bed in a room that looks more like a dorm than a jail cell. He received counseling and schooling.

Nor is Barkley an aberration: the recidivism rate hovers at 9% in Missouri (rather than 74% in Stark in California). The secret seems to be in the public health type approach: these juveniles will re-enter society, so it is better to do everything possible to help them become well-adjusted and productive before their release. So students receive mental counseling, go to school, perform plays, and provide community service . . . all in an effort to prepare them to live in society again.

This must mean that Missouri, by taking a public health approach to juvenile justice, spends much more money than it would to warehouse an at-risk youth until then end of his term, right? Wrong. Missouri officials claim that they have saved billions of dollars under the current, preventative plan.

When reshaping its juvenile justice system, California should keep AG’s Holder’s words in mind: “There is no doubt that we must be tough on crime. But we must also commit ourselves to being smart on crime. … We need to adopt what works.”

Note: Is there any emprical research demonstrating that the Missouri model does not work as well as traditional, more punitive youth prisons? If there is, I’d appreciate a link to it. Also, I am skeptical of the billions total, but depending on how broadly one considers the impact on economy, public safety, etc, perhaps that is close to accurate. I’m also interested in data that tracks that figure.

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