Rehabilitation Beats Punishment for Juveniles

One day, treatment of young people who run afoul of the law may be guided by logic rather than politics, prejudice, and uninformed passion. That was the implicit message of a report delivered to New York Gov. David Paterson last month, just in time for Christmas. The report, from the governor's task force on reforming criminal justice, came on the heels of a U.S. Justice Department investigation that found New York's juvenile penal system to be tragically mismanaged.

Youngsters in custody were routinely assaulted by staffers. Beatings were so severe that teeth were knocked out, bones were broken, and some kids were rendered unconscious. The assaults were sometimes sparked by infractions no more serious than laughing or stealing a cookie. The incarceration and the primitive methods accompanying it came at a substantial cost: $210,000 a year per child. Wouldn't it make more sense, task-force members reasoned, to reserve incarceration for those who posed a threat to public safety? For youngsters who are not deemed dangerous, other methods seem more reasonable. "The state should treat and rehabilitate them, not hurt and harden them," wrote the task force.

It would be nice if New York, and its mistreatment of young offenders, were an isolated case. But it's not. Earlier this month, the Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that some 13 percent of juveniles in confinement suffered sexual victimization, the vast majority (80 percent) from the people charged with their care. The BJS report (required by the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003) is only one in a growing series of studies pointing out massive flaws in America's juvenile-justice system.

"Our country is plagued by the shameful disproportionate treatment of minority youth at all stages in the justice process, and stands alone in the world in our punitive approach to children," observed the National Juvenile Justice Network in December 2008. A blue-ribbon task force in Louisiana reached much the same conclusion in 2005: "Rather than receiving proper rehabilitative care, young people are incarcerated in violent, unsafe facilities that compound preexisting problems, such as child abuse, mental illness, learning disabilities, and school failure ... Incarcerated youth are being abused and neglected by the very persons entrusted with the responsibility for their safety and rehabilitation."

It does not have to be this way. And, indeed, there are some places where it is not. The most widely recognized exception is Missouri, which has spent decades constructing a juvenile system that puts other states' to shame. Its emphasis is not on punishing young people but on saving them. And it has yielded impressive results. Three years after leaving the system, only 8 percent are back in it (a statistic that has held up, within a percentage point or two, for years). There are no national juvenile-recidivism statistics, but the average is likely much higher; some states report that well over 50 percent of those released are locked down again within a few years.

Missouri was not always a model of enlightenment. During the 1960s its juvenile system was embroiled in lawsuits, violence, and sundry scandals. One judge indignantly declared he would no longer send kids there. So officials decided it was time to experiment with something different. That decision coincided with Matthew Steward's 1970 graduation from college. Steward was assigned as a counselor to a small pilot program that put kids in small housing units instead of cells. His task was to try to forge them into law-abiding citizens. So he endeavored to create "a kid-friendly environment where kids were engaged, not put in uniform," he says. And to the astonishment of many, the new program worked. Eventually it became the model for the entire system, which Steward ended up heading.

Steward, who retired from that job in 2005, now runs the Missouri Youth Institute. The institute works with juvenile authorities across America and spreads the word about Missouri's methods and its values, values that put a premium on treating kids as individuals, not simply criminals to be confined and controlled.

In criminal-justice circles, Missouri's accomplishments are well known. State policymakers routinely make pilgrimages to observe the miracle. But many treat it more as a "tourist attraction" than as an example of what they could be doing back home, says James Bell, founder and executive director of the W. Haywood Burns Institute, a San Francisco nonprofit working on juvenile-justice issues. "People see the physical plant, the homelike environment," says Bell, and they're deeply impressed but "rarely try to copy the culture."

Steward thinks that is changing. In the last several years, officials from the District of Columbia, Louisiana, New Mexico, and elsewhere have tried to re-create, in some fashion, the Missouri model.

Jeremy Travis, the president of John Jay College of Criminal Justice and chair of the New York task force, thinks the moment may be ripe for the message to spread. In this age of tight budgets, legislators are more inclined to pay attention to methods that work—particularly when they cost less than what states are currently doing. Also, the "overheated rhetoric" that fueled the punitive measures of the 1980s, he notes, has died down. In that era, politicians confidently, if ignorantly, talked up a scourge of child predators, a new breed of youngsters so irremediably evil that society's only options were to execute them or imprison them for as long as possible. Now there is more willingness, Travis believes, to see young people as "developmentally different" and therefore more amenable to rehabilitation than adults.

Travis hopes this new attitude will usher in an era of reform in the juvenile system. In fact, his dream goes farther. As legislators question their largely discredited notions about young offenders, he hopes they will similarly question their handling of adults in the system. For that is also an area where new ideas are sorely needed. But that, alas, would require something many politicians seem constitutionally incapable of doing: to come to the matter with an open mind instead of with polarizing rhetoric that caters to voters' darkest fears.