A Culture of Caring

Like a born politician, Mark Steward, director of Missouri's Division of Youth Services, seldom forgets a name. Ambling through the gleaming halls of the Hogan Street Regional Youth Center in St. Louis on a recent summer afternoon, Steward stopped in several classrooms to shake hands and chat with the teenage residents, who are also some of Missouri's most serious juvenile offenders. His jocund yet earnest banter managed to disarm even the toughest scowlers. And though he oversees 33 such facilities that house about 1,300 young offenders around the state, he still managed to call several of the young men by name.

Steward comes by his folksy charm and easy confidence honestly: As a boy in rural Poplar Bluff, Missouri, he revered his dynamic grandfather, a career Yellow Dog Democrat and onetime campaign manager for Harry Truman. Steward's path, though, led him away from the halls of power. Instead, compelled by a college course on social work, he found his calling in juvenile hall. But Steward's political moxie served him well, helping him broker improbable coalitions to promote exemplary reforms.

Thirty-five years later, leading experts praise Missouri's Division of Youth Services as a “guiding light” of juvenile-justice reform, and they credit Steward with building -- and sustaining -- the finest state juvenile-corrections system in the country. Dubbed the “Missouri model” by reformers in other states, the decentralized youth corrections system strongly emphasizes rehabilitating young offenders in a homey, small-group setting that incorporates constant therapy and positive peer pressure under the direct guidance of well-trained counselors. “The Missouri model deals with young people who have demonstrated their willingness to break the law by exposing them to positive, caring relationships. It prepares them for the world,” says Jeffrey Butts, a juvenile-justice researcher at the University of Chicago. “Clearly all [juvenile-corrections] systems should be structured this way.”

The Division of Youth Service's “culture of caring,” as Steward describes it, is more than just an airy mission statement. Indeed, it is an elaborate, results-driven enterprise carefully designed around the dual goals of promoting public safety and delivering high-quality, appropriate treatment services to kids in a dignified environment. And by nearly every measure, it is a singular success. With its exceptionally low recidivism rates, moderate price tag, and widespread public support, the Missouri model flies in the face of the prevailing “tough on crime” approach for juveniles.

Each year, some 40,000 Missouri youth show up in juvenile court. Some kids are there because of parental abuse or neglect, while others have committed “status offenses,” which include truancy or running away from home. When a young person commits an actual crime, judges generally reserve commitment to a Division of Youth Services residential facility as the final option for only the toughest cases -- about 1,300 each year. County-run detention centers often hold kids prior to adjudication; many of the rest end up there for relatively brief stays. Others, meanwhile, are enrolled in a special-education program, or in substance-abuse or mental-health treatment. Though Missouri's county detention centers are nothing special, its juvenile-corrections system under Steward's Division of Youth Services is widely considered the nation's finest.

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For more than 15 years, Mark Steward and his staff have succeeded in marshaling strong political support for the Division of Youth Services from Missouri lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. This is no small feat, considering that in many places, juvenile-corrections programs -- often regarded as stepchildren of social-services or adult-corrections agencies -- normally have few champions outside the advocacy community. The division's most powerful resource is perhaps its advisory board; comprising 15 each of Missouri's most prominent Democrats and Republicans, the board lobbies on behalf of the juvenile system. Early on, Steward opened up his facilities to lawmakers and sponsored events to introduce them to the kids and the treatment model. When he went to the Statehouse, he took youngsters with him to testify about their experiences.

It worked. With steadfast support from the Legislature, Missouri's therapeutic model survived under John Ashcroft's conservative governorship and continued to grow and evolve under his Democratic successor, the late Governor Mel Carnahan, whose “tough” approach to adult violent crime in the early 1990s involved a prison-building spree to the tune of nearly half a billion dollars.

By the mid-'90s, juvenile-crime rates were up nationwide and punitive reforms to funnel young criminals into the adult justice system swept into state legislatures around the country. But when Carnahan turned his attention to Missouri's growing juvenile-crime problem in 1995, the outcome was considerably more thoughtful: First, a $20 million bond issue and a $7 million budget increase allowed Steward's program to expand to eight new facilities with hundreds of additional beds, while maintaining a rehabilitative, child-centered approach. Then, state legislators changed the law so that even young offenders with adult sentences could serve time in an age-appropriate facility within the Division of Youth Services, instead of in adult prison. Observers credit both Steward's political ingenuity and the program's track record with victories like that one.

These days, challenges to the Missouri model take the form of budget cuts and legislative term limits. In March, Governor Matt Blunt proposed slashing state spending by almost $240 million, including a dramatic 20-percent cut for the Division of Youth Services' nearly $60 million annual budget. It was the largest cut the system had faced in years, and would mean the loss of 140 residential treatment slots, as well as staff positions and funding for prevention programs.

Steward wasted no time in summoning support from “good friends” across the state. He dispatched conservative state Supreme Court Justice Stephen Limbaugh Jr., first cousin to Rush and staunch advocate for the Missouri model, to the governor's office. Steward himself implored the Republican House Appropriations chairman, another longtime supporter. Within days, editorials in major Missouri newspapers called on the governor to restore funding and chided Blunt for endangering the model program. By June, the state House and Senate had fully restored funding. The governor did not attempt a veto.

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At first glance, the Hogan Street Regional Youth Center looks like nothing more than an old urban high school. Located in a freshly gentrified neighborhood north of downtown St. Louis, it is surrounded by neat new homes with two-car garages and colorful flower beds. Outside the center, teenage boys in T-shirts and baggy shorts mill around an enclosed sports field adjacent to the school building, waiting for gym class to begin.

It's the height of the chain-link perimeter fence -- tall enough to discourage escape -- that subtly signals Hogan Street's true purpose. Opened in 1975, before Steward's tenure, the center serves as a secure-care residential facility for 33 of the area's most serious male juvenile offenders, whose crimes include rape, assault, and robbery. For them, Hogan Street is the final destination of a journey that began with an arrest and adjudication, and likely included several stints in a local detention facility or nonresidential treatment program. By the time they arrive, many boys are between 14 and 16 years old, and most will stay for nearly a year.

Save for the locked front door and a few inconspicuous security cameras, nothing inside the center reminds a visitor of its designation as one of Missouri's “secure” facilities; there is no razor wire or armed, uniformed guards. Instead, the ground floor bustles with the noises of the classroom. Bulletin boards are decorated with students' artwork, and colorful fliers announce an upcoming student-council election. Under the constant supervision of college-educated youth specialists, kids move about freely and wear their own clothes, not uniforms.

Upstairs, the teens keep the spacious dorm-style rooms neat as a pin. Ten bunk beds and dressers line one wall, while comfortable, oversized couches, lamps, and framed inspirational posters lend a family atmosphere to the common space. Teddy bears rest atop several neatly made beds, and pairs of sneakers are lined up in a perfect row down below. This charming scene stands in sharp contrast to the prison-like conditions of most secure youth corrections facilities around the country, where kids are confined to bare cells for much of the day.

Hogan Street is but one example of the many treatment options for young offenders. All facilities are small, designed to increase individualized attention and encourage one-on-one relationships between young people and staff.

For less serious offenders requiring residential treatment, there are moderate-care facilities and group homes that do not require perimeter fencing and bolted doors. Missouri under Ashcroft was the first state in the country to open a group home for teen girls on a college campus. Other offenders attend day treatment, which operates year-round during school hours. For youth in residential facilities, caseworkers try to place them no more than 75 miles from home in the hope that less distance will increase parents' visits and involvement.

In many youth systems elsewhere, therapy is hit or miss. In Missouri, however, a therapeutic approach undergirds everything, transforming the most mundane activities into opportunities for learning and growth. Starting the moment they enter a Division of Youth Services facility, offenders spend virtually all of their time in small, self-contained groups of nine to 12. Always under the supervision of two youth specialists, the teams eat, shower, study, and sleep together. At least five times each day, teams do a “check in” during which kids update the staff and one another on how they are feeling, emotionally and physically. And at any time, staff and teens are free to call a “circle” to raise a concern or voice a complaint. Immediately, the group forms an actual circle and, facing one another, hashes it out -- in a sanative, productive way.

At its core, the Missouri approach operates on the premise that internalized behavior changes can occur only once a young person has confronted the often painful dysfunction in his or her past that led him or her to crime. To do that, teens must feel safe and protected within a structured environment that reinforces the importance of open communication.

The early and sustained presence of a case manager also contributes to an offender's sense of security. “The continuous case-management system really is the cornerstone of our program,” explains Steward. In Missouri, all committed youngsters are assigned individual case managers who advocate for them within the system and even after they leave it. This seamless approach prevents kids from getting lost in the shuffle and promotes good behavior during the often-rocky transition back into the community. For most kids, “aftercare” consists of a prolonged relationship with a case manager. Many youths are also assigned a “tracker” who meets with them regularly to monitor their progress. Trackers are often college students, or sometimes residents of the youth's home community. Missouri also operates 11 nonresidential “day treatment” centers year-round during school hours; these facilities offer a way station for many teens after leaving a Division of Youth Services facility.

Missouri prizes its staff, and it sets the bar high for its employees: 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. (In most states, employees are “rewarded” for good work by getting an office away from kids, like in a prison system.) In return, Missouri offers its employees competitive wages and advancement opportunities. Steward's high standards are nonnegotiable. “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.”

And how has this investment paid off? The numbers speak for themselves. In 2004, only 8 percent of young offenders were recommitted to the Division of Youth Services within a year of release. Similarly, a long-term recidivism study showed that only 8 percent of youth released in 1999 were incarcerated in youth or adult corrections three years later, while 19 percent were sentenced to adult probation -- meaning 70 percent of those recent graduates avoided either prison or probation for at least three years. Juvenile recidivism rates are notoriously difficult to contrast across jurisdictions, but compared with other states that tabulate results, Missouri's numbers are remarkable. In Louisiana, for example, about 43 percent of youth released from residential juvenile-corrections programs in 1999 returned to juvenile custody, adult prison, or probation by mid-2002.

Besides the obvious future savings that accompany its low recidivism rates, the Missouri model is also substantially cheaper than many of its counterparts around the country. In 2004, the Division of Youth Services devoted fully 89 percent of its budget to treatment services. Across the state, the annual cost per bed in a residential treatment facility ranged from $41,400 to $55,000. In 2003, Maryland spent $64,000 per bed, while California spent a whopping $71,000. What's worse, far more young people in Maryland and California end up in prison as adults, meaning that those states effectively pay twice as much for inferior treatment.

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In recent years, the Missouri Division of Youth Services has opened its doors to reformers and administrators from dozens of states. With help from foundations, the Missouri model is fast becoming the blueprint for juvenile reform in Louisiana, Maryland, and Washington, D.C., among others. During these visits, Missouri's young offenders are tour guides, answering visitors' questions. Surprising the adults, the kids are articulate and thoughtful; they look people in the eye, and many are eager to share their stories. This, combined with an absence of high-profile violence and tragic teen suicides in the Missouri system, has led some reformers to question just how “tough” the state's juvenile offenders really are. Is the program really all that successful, or, in the words of one such skeptic, are these kids just “cream puffs?”

“Anytime you hear that, a big flag should go up,” Jeffrey Butts says sharply, for these are in fact the hardest cases in the state. The University of Chicago researcher says he has heard the same line for 20 years, and it just isn't true. “People who have had long careers don't want to own up to the deep failures of their own systems. They're shocked to be confronted with real success -- it's a threat.”

As for Mark Steward, he retired this summer, ending more than three decades of service to Missouri's youthful offenders and his 17-year term as director of the Division of Youth Services. Though he hopes to sit on the advisory board and continue to lobby the Statehouse on behalf of his beloved programs, Steward says it's time to turn his attention to other states in need of reform. “I just want to be the Johnny Appleseed of good juvenile treatments,” he says.

Ayelish McGarvey is a Prospect writing fellow.

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