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|For D.C., hope in treating young offenders|
|Wednesday, 19 May 2010 09:10|
LAUREL, Md. — In the lobby of the New Beginnings Youth Development Center stood the figure of a man sculpted from steel, his body fashioned from the barrels and bullet chambers of illegal guns seized by police. Modern-day swords, the guns were beaten into plowshares by the same young men who used them to commit crimes.
Washington, D.C., a city with a long, sad history of failing its youth, has achieved a rare victory in dealing with troubled kids. On a swath of federal land in suburban Maryland, the District of Columbia has transformed its juvenile lockup. What was once a filthy prison for boys is now a new, campus-like setting where the city's worst young offenders work their way through a heavily structured program of individualized education, group therapy, behavior modification and unusual programs such as "Guns to Roses," the art project that turned 28 illegal weapons, melted down by police, into sculptures.
Washington based its $46 million facility — built as part of a court-ordered agreement from a 25-year-old lawsuit over its treatment of juvenile offenders — on programs used for decades in Missouri, the state with the lowest rate of juvenile repeat offenders in the nation.
New Beginnings, a 60-bed lockup that opened in June, is the most prominent example of increasing interest from other states and cities in the "Missouri model" for turning around deeply troubled, and troublemaking, young people.
The attention to Missouri's measurable success is prompted by money, frustration and federal edict.
Budget deficits are forcing states to rethink juvenile incarceration. States are looking for more cost-effective methods than spending more than $200,000 a year per child — the cost in New York, according to a recent state juvenile justice task force — to lock up the same violent kids over and over. U.S. Department of Justice investigations over abusive treatment of youths in state care are forcing change to old models of reform schools.
But remaking juvenile custody along Missouri's guidelines is a difficult and expensive road to follow — and one that gets rough when youths are charged with serious crimes.
This month, three young men under the supervision of the Washington juvenile agency have been charged with the murder of a popular middle school principal, putting the agency under intense scrutiny.
A sharp contrast to the boot camps and scared-straight approaches of the 1980s and 1990s, the Missouri model puts delinquent youths into small residential settings, where they get intense peer and professional counseling.
Unlike state "training schools," which are sometimes hundreds of miles from the youths' homes, the facilities are closer to the communities where the kids live. Physical restraint, which federal investigations have found to be common in some other states, is used sparingly. Empty hours spent in isolation have been replaced with non-stop group activity.
"We know, after a couple of hundred years, that the large institutions just don't work," says Edward Loughran, executive director of the Council of Juvenile Correctional Administrators, a national association of agency heads. "They're impersonal, youth fall through the cracks, abuses creep in very easily."
Missouri's approach not only seems more humane — "it feels good," says former Washington, D.C., juvenile agency head Vincent Schiraldi — it appears to succeed at preventing kids from becoming career criminals.
Fewer than 10% of the youths who go through Missouri's juvenile program are recommitted within two years of leaving, according to the state Department of Youth Services. Recidivism rates are difficult to compare, because juvenile justice systems and definitions of repeat offenders vary from state to state.
Yet by their own measures, other states have far less success than Missouri.
In New York, 75% of youths leaving state residential custody are arrested again within three years, compared with 30% for Missouri. In Virginia, 24% of juveniles were re-incarcerated within a year, state figures show.
Washington, D.C.'s reconviction rate within 12 months of release was 25% in 2007, the latest year for which figures are available.
'I want these kids to be tired'
Up the road from New Beginnings is Oak Hill, the youth prison built in 1968 and closed last year. Its tiled cells and bleak common areas — now flooded and vandalized — once housed 260 youths. A fence with six rows of razor wire surrounds the buildings.
The number of juveniles in youth prisons nationwide has dropped as the crime rate has fallen, from 108,802 in 2000 to fewer than 81,000 in 2008, according to the Justice Department reports. Big prisons remain common: In 2006, nearly 19,000 young people were in prisons with more than 150 beds.
Yet the lesson of Missouri's success is "small matters," says Schiraldi, now head of the probation department in New York City. When he ran New Beginnings from June until his departure in January, "my goal (was) for the administrator of my facility to know the life story of every kid in it. So kids don't get lost."
At New Beginnings, kids have a full schedule: school, sports, homework, group discussion, bedtime at 9:30 p.m. New Beginnings' school, a charter school, is loaded with computers, smart boards, a spacious woodshop and theater, and two teachers per classroom who monitor students' progress in daily written reports.
"At the end of the day, I want these kids to be tired. I want them to want to just lay down and go to sleep," says Marc Schindler, Schiraldi's successor as head of the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services. "In the past, they were sitting doing nothing. Or worse, they were locked in their rooms."
Youths stay at New Beginnings for 10 months or more, much longer than the average stay of 72 days at Oak Hill. Each young man must progress through six levels before he can be released — and each new level is reached by complying with the rules, doing well in school and handling increased responsibility.
"They just let you know (that) what you're doing, there will be a consequence," says Perry White, 15, who has spent six months at New Beginnings.
The intense effort that has gone into creating New Beginnings covers only one part of the juvenile agency's broad responsibilities. The Missouri model focuses on young men and women who are locked up, not the larger number of youths who get into less serious trouble and are sent to community-based programs or group homes.
In D.C., about 800 young people, male and female, are under the juvenile agency's supervision. Youths with significant mental health problems, those who have committed sex offenses and those with less serious records are sent to out-of-state programs.
The young men at New Beginnings — ages 15 to 20, currently all minorities — have committed offenses including robbery, car theft, gun crimes and burglary. Some are there for attempted murder; they can apply to move up a level every two months compared with every month for the other youths.
They are held accountable for their crimes, Schiraldi says. "This isn't a child welfare situation. These kids did something," he says. "They deserve us to be a bit angry at them."
The Missouri model works because "the kids, for sometimes the first time in their life, are dealing with their own issues of what caused their delinquency," says Mark Steward, who led the Missouri juvenile justice agency for 17 years and now is a consultant for other states.
Teenage boys, many used to expressing themselves through violence, aren't eager to open up. "Most kids come in going not 'No,' but 'Hell no, I'm not talking about it,' " he says. If kids don't participate, though, they don't move up the levels. "If you don't reach inside yourself … you're going to be sitting here for a long time," Steward says.
(The D.C. agency does not have a similar program for girls, but the Missouri model and Missouri's own program is for male and female offenders.)
DeAndre Greenwald, 17, earned his high school equivalency degree at New Beginnings while he was locked up for gun possession. The school was better than the one he had attended at home, he says, and he liked the structure of the program better than the four out-of-state lockups he had been to since his first arrest at age 12.
"It helps me find ways to live — organized life instead of just going with the flow," he says. "Even though I'm locked up, I'm still doing something with my life, I'm still progressing."
Programs tend to be costly
New Beginnings is the first new facility outside Missouri to follow that state's model. D.C. officials hope the program will be a national example.
"It's small enough to really completely change, and it's the nation's capital, so it's easy to become a national model," says David Muhammad, who heads residential programs for the juvenile agency.
The Missouri model also is taking hold in Louisiana, which has built dorm-style housing at its Bridge City youth prison, and in San Jose, where Santa Clara County uses Missouri-based programs at its juvenile ranch.
Why isn't every state following the Missouri model?
It's an expensive overhaul at a time when states are cutting budgets, and the incentive of cost savings — in the form of reducing repeat offenses — can take years to materialize. During high crime years of the 1980s and early '90s, when fear of "superpredator" teenagers was at its height, states built and staffed juvenile prisons.
Closing large state institutions often means cutting jobs, and emphasizing rehabilitation over corrections means costly staff training or increasing educational requirements for hiring.
"It's hard to do," says Sarah Bryer of the National Juvenile Justice Network, an association of juvenile advocacy groups.
The more than 100 employees at New Beginnings includes staff who once worked as guards at the D.C. adult prison in Lorton, Va., before it was shut down, then moved to Oak Hill and then to New Beginnings.
It's a difficult transition, Muhammad says, from "count and cuff" to "engage and counsel."
"They were hired to be prison guards, and we're telling them, 'You're now a youth development officer,' " Muhammad says.
When some gun parts from the Guns to Roses project were discovered in the living units, staff members — who hadn't been briefed on the project — were outraged, says Tasha Williams of the Fraternal Order of Police, the union representing New Beginnings staff.
New Beginnings hasn't been around long enough to have its own track record of success.
The Washington program has come under intense criticism from Washington Post columnist Colbert King, who has documented youths committing crimes while under the agency's supervision.
The day after Schiraldi opened New Beginnings, a young resident scaled the fence and ran away. Chagrined, administrators added razor wire.
"I've never advocated that all youth should be securely detained," says Johnnie Walker of the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents agency caseworkers. "But when you look at the criminal background of some of these youth, being in a group home, where they can walk (away), is just not the place."
Another blow to the agency's credibility came this month, when three youths under its supervision were charged with the murder of middle-school principal Brian Betts in his home. Seven youths under the agency's supervision have been charged with homicide this year.
None of them has been through the New Beginnings program, Muhammad says. In the 11 months that New Beginnings has been open, about 25% of its graduates have been rearrested, he says, on charges including car theft and weapons possession.
The Betts murder has raised questions about whether the agency is letting young men stay in the community who should be locked up. Muhammad calls the case "disturbing."
"Instances of high-profile and alarming cases make us look at our processes," he says. "We also need to be cautious of completely changing direction. ... This is a reminder that we have a lot of work to do, but we are on track."
New Beginnings is aptly named, but achieving new results is much harder.
"If you want to change the culture of a juvenile system," Schiraldi says, "you'd better come with all your pads on."