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‘Dignity and Respect’
America’s model youth justice system is built on empathy
Jan Nicole Garcia

One evening in the early 1970s, Mark Steward—a group counselor with the state of Missouri’s Division of Youth Services—took his group of juvenile corrections kids to Pizza Hut for dinner. When he said hello to a young woman in the restaurant, the kids noticed.

“They said, ‘She’s good-lookin’, man! Why don’t you ask her out?’” Steward remembered, laughing. “And I said, ‘OK, I think I will!’” The woman eventually became his wife. “If it weren’t for the kids in Youth Services, I probably wouldn’t have been married these past 38 years,” he said.

But the kids in Missouri’s juvenile justice system also have many reasons to be thankful for the system Mark Steward helped set up in that state during his career. The story he tells about Pizza Hut illustrates the kind of relationships that kids in Missouri’s juvenile prisons have with staff and with each other.

More Like a Friend

That kind of relationship, one of “dignity and respect,” is what Steward considers the most important part of the “Missouri model”—what people now call Missouri’s approach to juvenile corrections. In 1970, Missouri had what Steward calls a “horrible” juvenile justice system and was trying out a new, softer approach with a few of its toughest juvenile prisoners. Steward was just out of college and was the first counselor hired to work with them.

Before, these kids had been locked in cells and made to wear prison uniforms. The new approach was different: no more locked cells, and kids could wear their own clothes. Also, “We dealt with them more as a friend and a big brother or big sister, and came to them from a personal connection instead of a position of power,” Steward said. After a few years, the kids were doing so well that the whole state of Missouri began switching over to the new method.

Steward eventually rose to become the director of the state’s Division of Youth Services. The state received national attention for the success of its methods. Today, Steward runs the Missouri Youth Services Institute, a nonprofit organization that advises other states’ juvenile justice agencies—including New York’s—on ways to impro ve their systems. (See interview with Gladys Carrión on p. 16.)

Miraculous or Obvious?

It makes sense that other states would want to adopt the Missouri model. Of youth released from Missouri’s juvenile prisons in 1999, 70% had avoided returning to a correctional program three years later; nationally, the success rate was as low as 25% in places.

Because of this, Missouri’s system has been called “the Missouri miracle,” but the reasons for its success seem obvious. Missouri’s juveniles are placed in small groups of 10-12 kids who spend all their time together and support each other. There are many juvenile prisons throughout the state, so kids stay close to home. They have well-educated adult counselors who listen to them and try to help them reflect on what they’ve done and why they did it. Family therapy helps them improve their relationships with their families. When they eventually return home, they’re given a lot of continuing support.

image by YC-Art Dept

Despite all these services, Missouri’s system is not especially expensive—it’s about in the middle between the least expensive and most expensive systems in the U.S. So why isn’t everyone using the Missouri model? Steward said it comes down to being “stubborn or stupid.”

“In some cases it’s hard for them to admit that they’ve been doing the wrong thing for years and years and years,” he said. “A lot of people are arrogant, power-hungry. And that doesn’t sit well with saying we’ve been having problems, we need to change.”

Punishment Enough

In some cases, adults just don’t like to see kids looking happy and comfortable in juvenile prisons. Juvenile justice administrators from one state actually told Steward that kids should be treated badly so they wouldn’t want to come back.

“What we always thought was, it’s punishment enough to be sent away from home. What these kids need is help,” he said. Because many kids in prison have been through physical, emotional, and other trauma before they got into trouble with the law, “we try to create a healing environment and a safe environment for the kids, so they can figure out how to change their lives.”

Often, a teen’s biggest obstacle to making positive changes is peer pressure. So the Missouri model uses the power of peer pressure in a positive way. “We try to teach them to not go with the group when the group is going wrong,” Steward said. It works most of the time, because compared to adults, “kids are more flexible and will listen to others more. They’re less set in their ways.”

Supporting Change

After interviewing Mark Steward I was surprised to know there are people involved in juvenile justice who really care about youth. His personality caught my attention: He seemed kind, wise, and genuinely interested in making juvenile prisons around the country more humane.

“These are kids who made mistakes; they’re not bad kids. We all deserve a second chance,” he said. I think it’s a good point. None of us are perfect and as kids, we’re not always mature enough to know what we’re doing. Sometimes we don’t think, we act impulsively, and we make mistakes.

However, I believe no one was created evil. Like Steward said, a lot of the kids in lockup have been mistreated. Sometimes kids who are considered “bad” just don’t have the support and attention they need, and they confront their feelings by hurting themselves or people around them.

Those kids do need help, and the Missouri system gives it to them. It seems like a place where kids get that care and comfort they never had. By the results, we can see how possible change is with attention and support.

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