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Missouri Sees Teen Offenders as Kids, Not Inmates

At the Northwest Regional Youth Center in Kansas City, Mo., a science class is under way with students eagerly discussing botany and roots.

At the Northwest Regional Youth Center boys are grouped into teams and share living quarters together. Jason Beaubien, NPR The scene resembles a science classroom at any urban public high school except for the thick screens on the windows.

A tall chain-link fence surrounds the building, but inside there are few signs that these 10 teenagers are confined. They wear regular clothes and the teachers and staff are dressed casually.

The Northwest Regional Youth Center is where Missouri sends some of its most troubled — and troublesome — juvenile offenders. Street thugs from St. Louis mix with gang members from Kansas City and pint-sized, rural car thieves, yet there’s a sense of calmness. It’s part of Missouri’s treatment-oriented approach toward juveniles where lockups are designed to resemble college dorms and offenders are treated firmly, seriously and humanely.

Offenders as Citizens

Tim Decker who runs the Missouri Division of Youth Services, says the goal is for young offenders to turn their lives around and not return. The way to make their criminal behavior stop, he says, is to help them get their lives on track. The result of Missouri’s focus on rehabilitation is a 7.3 percent recidivism rate.

“Our first and primary function is public safety. We have young people who’ve become a problem in our community and that needs to stop,” Decker says.

The Northwest Regional Youth Center is an old elementary school that houses 30 teenagers in three “teams” of 10. Each boy spends most of his day with nine other boys. They go to class in the same classroom, play basketball together, bunk in the same room and eat together. In the evening, they attend group therapy and counseling sessions as a group.

Barry Krisberg, president of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, praises Missouri’s approach and says states with troubled juvenile corrections systems could learn from its system.

“The basic logic of youth corrections is that if you treat young people like inmates, they’ll act like prisoners,” Krisberg says. “If you treat them like young people capable of being citizens, they’ll much more likely act like citizens.”

An Innovative Approach

Reggie, 16, came to the center five months ago, but he’s been in juvenile detention facilities almost continuously since he was 13. His room, with a dozen bunk beds lining the wall, is festively decorated for Halloween with cardboard cutouts of black bats and orange pumpkins on the walls. He says the worst thing about being at the center is not seeing his family.

“That hurt me more than anything, just knowing that I can’t just pick up the phone, call my family — know what they’re up to,” Reggie says. “I just can’t go to the next room and expect my momma to be there or see my sister. Or go downstairs. I can’t do any of that.”

Reggie says he started stealing cars with his older brother when he was only 9 years old. One of eight children, Reggie was raised by a single mother who often shuttled the family between homeless shelters. He says therapy has made him think about how his chaotic childhood affected his life.

“I didn’t have a lot of things that other kids had. I couldn’t read, write or spell. I was class clown. That’s what led up to me doing crime,” Reggie says. “I’m not going to put everything off on that because it’s got a lot to do with me making the right decisions, but it also has a lot to do with how I was brought up.”

Reggie says he’s been treated differently at the center. When he was first arrested, he couldn’t read or write. Now Reggie is working toward his GED. Therapy has allowed him to let down his street-tough facade and talk about being angry and hurt. He says he hopes eventually to go to college and become a police officer.

Listen to the story on NPR