Pili Robinson, of the Missouri Youth Services Institute, was brought in to transform a troubled juvenile detention center in Washington, D.C. It now focuses on rehabilitation instead of punishment. [Photo by Mark Abramson.]

Pili Robinson was surprised by what young people told him in April 2005 when he went door to door in the disciplinary unit of the Oak Hill Youth Center in Laurel, Md. All were sent there for medical reasons, gender identification issues or aggressive behavior. Some said they had been locked in their dimly lit cells for 24 hours a day, seven days a week for up to 60 days.

When they were eventually let out of their cells, they fought over basic needs such as toothpaste, deodorant, food and clothing.

Scarce supplies and a deteriorating environment triggered bitter feelings, which exploded into fistfights. By November 2005, 18-year-old Karl Grimes was dead from head injuries he sustained during a fight with two other youth.

“It was a really inhumane, bad place,” said Robinson, of the Missouri Youth Services Institute. The consulting agency partnered that year with the District of Columbia’s Youth Rehabilitation Services Department, which operates Oak Hill, to try and remedy the center’s supervisory problems and subpar living conditions and ultimately create a juvenile justice system based on rehabilitation instead of punishment.

The trouble at the facility dated back to as early as 1985. That’s when the Public Defender Services and American Civil Liberties Union sued Oak Hill for its poor services to youth in a case known as Jerry M. v. District of Columbia. Leading up to the lawsuit, Oak Hill was plagued by frequent violence, inadequately trained staff, and a deficiency of job training and educational opportunities to help young people succeed in life after imprisonment.

Meanwhile, out west, Missouri had designed a sustainable model centered on youth rehabilitation. The Missouri model, which started 40 years ago, rehabilitates young people through group therapy in a humane environment.

“Most juvenile systems are based on the correctional policy, which has not worked,” said Mark Steward, director of the Missouri Youth Services Institute. “It’s almost a revolving door. They go out and come back in. The juvenile system has become like the minor leagues for the adult prison system.”

Missouri has proven the effectiveness of its model with the lowest-known juvenile recidivism rate in the country, Steward said. Only 8.4 percent of youth released in 2006 were recommitted to juvenile facilities by 2009. Compare that with Illinois, where half the juvenile offenders ended up back in the juvenile system over the same period.

Youth in punitive systems are more likely to reoffend because they adapt to their aggressive environment, taking up the violent behaviors of fellow inmates and regressing academically, said Marc Schindler, who was the head of the Washington, D.C., juvenile justice system until he was replaced in July after a middle-school principal was allegedly killed by several youth under the system’s supervision. “That’s not only wasting an opportunity, but we have damaged that young person,” Schindler said.

Other states have taken notice of Missouri’s success. Representatives from half of the states in the nation have visited Missouri’s facilities over the past decade, Steward said. Missouri has seen at least 50 visitors from Illinois. But despite the interest, Illinois hasn’t pulled together the resources necessary to pursue a transformation, Steward said. “It’s a hell of a lot of work, and it takes commitment,” Steward said. “You have to change the culture from punitive and correctional to therapeutic.”

States facing pressure from the U.S. Justice Department or possible lawsuits have taken swifter action to make a quality juvenile justice system a reality. To help interested states model their system after Missouri’s, Steward retired after 17 years as the juvenile justice director in Missouri and then founded the Missouri Youth Services Institute in 2005. Since then, Louisiana, New Mexico, New York, two counties in California and Washington have hired the institute to assess their juvenile systems, recommend policies, train staff and lead reform at their facilities.

The quality of the Washington juvenile justice system continued to decline even after the lawsuit was filed in 1985. Fed up with the lack of progress, the plaintiffs in December 2003 requested that the court take charge of the agency and remedy the complaints. In lieu of that, then-Mayor Anthony Williams appointed a new director, Vincent Schiraldi, to oversee the juvenile justice system.

Schiraldi outlined a plan to close Oak Hill and open a new facility based on the Missouri model, with guidance from the Missouri Youth Services Institute. In the meantime, Oak Hill implemented a portion of the Missouri model, experimenting with group therapy, increasing the staff-to-youth ratio and improving conditions. By December 2007, plaintiffs were satisfied enough with the system’s progress to withdraw their motion for the court to take over the agency.

In May 2009, Oak Hill was replaced with the state-of-the-art New Beginnings facility, where the rooms were created like comfortable college dorms instead of prison cells. The rooms were private, carpeted and had natural light. There were night lights for reading, and youth had chalkboards to express themselves.

By providing a safe, clean environment where youth can let their guard down, New Beginnings helped the young people work through the problems that led them to criminal activity. “The whole point was to create this humane environment where kids are comfortable enough to share what’s going on in their world,” Robinson said.

The rehabilitation program on average lasts nine to 10 months. For two hours every night, students gather in their group of 10 to talk about their lives in an exercise designed to help them get to the root of their problems. Their daily schedules also include class, gym and journaling.

Washington applied Missouri’s group therapy process, also hiring a mental health worker and a caseworker to provide extra rehabilitative services for each therapy group. So far, the reforms have motivated youth to find alternatives to reoffending, Schindler said. Oak Hill has cut its recidivism rate in half, from 30 percent of juveniles reconvicted within a year in 2004 to 16 percent in 2007, according to a 2008 report about public safety in the Washington juvenile justice system.

The biggest challenge has been getting the old Oak Hill staff onboard with rehabilitation. Over the past five years, Robinson said some staff tried to sabotage the reform efforts, turning their backs on fighting or escaping youth. A couple of weeks after New Beginnings opened, some staff members abandoned six youth for five hours, giving them the opportunity to escape, Robinson said. They were later recovered outside the building.

Although some staff have grown fond of the new model, the majority still believe that the youth are criminals who need to “feel the wrath of the criminal justice system so they won’t get in trouble again,” Robinson said.

Robinson said changing the staff culture is one of two major obstacles to long-term success. The second is finding another way to accommodate youth with shorter sentences.

But whether Washington’s success will continue after losing its two key reformers is debatable. Schiraldi left Washington to move to New York City’s probation department in January, and his interim replacement, Schindler, was removed after the middle-school principal was killed. But Steward said such incidences will happen in any state, and the change in the district’s leadership might disrupt reform.

The key to continuing reform is earning young people’s trust in order to help them turn their lives around, Schindler said. When youth first came to New Beginnings, they were shocked and felt like they didn’t deserve such a nice place to live, Robinson said. But then they regained their sense of dignity and returned the respect, taking pride in the quality of their new home and the cutting-edge educational technology it offered.

“We have to treat them with dignity and respect, and earn their trust and not assume it,” Schindler said. If “I put you in a prison cell that stinks from the smell of urine and feces with the toilet next to your head, probably the message you’re going to take away from that is that you don’t really care about me. If you really cared about me, why would you stick me in this rat hole at the end of the day?”

Catherine Newhouse

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