California Urged To Follow Missouri On Youth Prisons
A half-dozen scathing reports by national experts this year said the California system overuses doping drugs and physical restraints on youths who often lack for adequate mental or physical health treatment. Wards were routinely locked in small wire mesh cages, or in their cells for 23 hours a day in nine crowded youth facilities that hold more than 4,000 young wards.
The California Youth Authority is rapidly making reforms while looking to national models including Missouri, said spokeswoman Nancy Lungren, though she doubted California can go so far as that smaller Midwestern state.
"They have a younger (inmate) population and they don't have as ethnically diverse a population," Lungren said. "We take the most serious offenders into the California Youth Authority because they need to be kept away from society."
Parents, former wards and reformers who recently toured Missouri's system said the state should dump its current system in the wake of highly publicized double suicides and beatings this year.
Missouri had similar problems, they said, until it radically altered its juvenile system 20 years ago. Now no facility has more than 50 beds, and 31 of the state's 35 youth facilities have 33 beds or fewer.
Among reform advocates meeting with state legislators Wednesday was Allen Feaster, who blames California's dehumanizing system for prompting his son and a roommate to hang themselves in their cell in the Ione facility. Advocates said no youths have committed suicide in the 20 years since Missouri reformed its juvenile system.
A tearful Laura Talkington, the mother of a ward in a Stockton facility, said she and another mother broke down when they saw their first Missouri facility: "There was no barbed wire. There were kids outside playing football.
"These kids are going on to college and jobs. Our kids are going on to prison," Talkington said.
The state could improve its services and save money by dismantling its youth prisons, said state Sen. Gloria Romero, D-Los Angeles, whose prison oversight committee has conducted a series of critical hearings into the youth and adult prison systems.
California should quickly begin transferring many wards to community-based programs that focus on rehabilitation and are closer to wards' families, Romero said. She expects new director Walter Allen III to detail how he will reform California's system, using Missouri as one model, when he faces Senate confirmation in several weeks.
Until 1983, Missouri locked its most serious youth offenders in one large facility.
Now, Missouri's system aims at rehabilitation and personal responsibility, a contrast to what advocates and experts call California's emphasis on punishment amid an atmosphere of intimidation and violence.
While employees of a Stockton facility were videotaped beating and gassing two combative wards earlier this year, Missouri relies on a more passive restraint policy that advocates say has resulted in neither serious injuries nor lawsuits in the 15 years it has been in use.
Missouri had a 70 percent success rate for youths leaving its system in 1999, according to an Annie E. Casey Foundation study, while 91 percent of youths who left California's system soon returned.