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FROM: The Advocate, 2.12.03

Missouri Offers Guide for Louisiana Juvenile Justice
Vicki Ferstel

The headlines look familiar: Prison riots, escapes, rapes and beatings. This was not Louisiana. Those were the news stories in the 1970s about Missouri's 600-bed juvenile prison in rural Booneville.

Missouri reformed its juvenile-justice system after a number of years. That state no longer houses its 1,300 juvenile offenders in prison cells. Instead, the offenders stay either in school-style dormitories or are assigned to day programs located near their homes so the state also can provide family therapy.

Even for its most-violent juvenile offenders, Missouri provides only fences around the dorms.

The Missouri system is considered one of the most effective in the nation. Here's what they learned: Group homes and day programs work better at rehabilitation and are a lot cheaper to run than juvenile prisons.

In Louisiana, the system is reversed. Louisiana has far more prison beds, 1,678, than its 836 group-home beds and 268 day-program slots.

Because of that, Louisiana's juvenile corrections system is far more expensive: $127.6 million budgeted this fiscal year in Louisiana versus $60 million in Missouri.

Elijah Lewis, the assistant corrections secretary over Louisiana's juvenile corrections, said those budget figures may be an apples-and-oranges comparison because Missouri diverts 80 percent of its juvenile offenders to pre-trial programs while Louisiana diverts only 40 percent.

Lewis acknowledges that prison is the most-expensive option.

The Louisiana Juvenile Justice Commission and its advisory board -- considering reforms for Louisiana -- recently toured the Missouri system. Commissioners, including state Rep. Diane Winston, R-Covington, hailed that system as one Louisiana should emulate.

Getting from here to there will take some doing. Louisiana's district attorneys, sheriffs and state Corrections Secretary Richard Stalder already voiced reservations about two of the most far-reaching proposals before the Commission: Immediately closing one of the state's four juvenile prisons and creating a Department of Children, Youth and Families.

The nonprofit Annie E. Casey Foundation, a national organization that promotes public policies dealing with children and families, suggested immediate closure of a juvenile prison in order to generate funds to expand alternative rehabilitation programs. The idea is that Louisiana, in its fiscal bind, will not otherwise have those funds to spend.

The commission's advisory board suggested creating a new agency as a way to change the mind-set of state officials involved with juvenile justice.

Missouri's reforms occurred during a period of years, by trial and error, and without a master plan, said Mark Steward, director of Missouri's Division of Youth Services, which oversees services for juvenile offenders.

The first step came in 1970, when Missouri moved 100 juveniles, including some of its most-hardened offenders, from the Booneville prison into the mobile homes of an abandoned Job Corps center in a national park near Poplar Bluff, Mo. Against all odds, Steward said, the alternative program worked.

The state took another 10 years before it decided to convert the Booneville prison -- midway between St. Louis and Kansas City -- into an adult prison.

In 1973, Missouri overhauled its executive branch, which until then provided state services through 114 independent agencies, Steward said. Juvenile and adult corrections were placed under Missouri's new Department of Social Services. The state formed a separate adult corrections agency in 1978, but left juvenile corrections under social services.

Steward said many of the liberal reform efforts had the support of conservatives such as John Ashcroft, now U.S. attorney general and then Missouri's governor, and Stephen Limbaugh, a Republican circuit court judge who is a cousin of conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh.

Steward said the pace of reform is not as important as just getting it started. He suggests Louisiana begin by conducting thorough evaluations of each juvenile offender to determine the best type of rehabilitation for that boy or girl.

Well, that's a start.



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