ST. LOUIS - Smack in the middle of a blighted neighborhood of boarded-up houses, littered alleys and other pockmarks of urban decay, some of this Midwestern city's toughest kids are learning how to turn their lives around.
On the streets, they committed such crimes as rape, armed robbery, carjacking and home invasion - offenses that got them sent by the courts to the state-run Hogan Street Regional Youth Center.
The atmosphere inside the aging brick building, once a parochial school, is a far cry from that found in juvenile facilities in most states, including Maryland. The youths live in dorms, not cells. They wear their own clothes, not uniforms. And they move about freely, supervised by college-educated counselors who are more like mentors than guards.
"Our whole program is geared to what would you want for your own children," said Mark Steward, who is head of Missouri's Division of Youth Services.
Missouri's gentler approach to dealing with troubled teens has met with an unusual degree of success, winning accolades from national experts on youth crime.
Far fewer of the juvenile offenders who go through Missouri's system go on to commit crimes that land them in adult prison than is the case elsewhere, studies show.
That track record has attracted attention from a dozen states, including Maryland, where officials have dispatched delegations to examine Missouri's methods.
Steward said the key is to create a homelike environment in which youngsters feel safe - emotionally and physically - and to have a well-trained cadre of counselors who work with them intensively.
Communities are poorly served by sticking juvenile offenders in "prison-type environments" that are run like slightly modified versions of adult jails, he said.
To those who would argue that Missouri's approach is too "feel-good, soft on crime," Steward has this response: It works, and it saves taxpayer dollars in the long run.
One study compiled in 2003 showed that just 8 percent of the 1,386 teens released from state custody in Missouri in 1999 were sentenced to state prison in the next three years. That compares with a 30 percent rate in Maryland.
And Missouri's approach doesn't cost any more than Maryland's, which is widely criticized. Missouri spends about $55,000 per year to keep a youth at the Hogan Street center, while it costs Maryland about $64,000 a year to keep a youth at the Charles H. Hickey Jr. School in Baltimore County.
Missouri officials acknowledge that some youths are too violent to be accepted into the state's juvenile facilities and are sent to adult prisons instead. But Steward said such cases are uncommon, averaging fewer than five a year.
"No matter how you cut it, Missouri's numbers look good," said Bart Lubow, director of the Annie E. Casey Foundation's programs for high-risk youths.
Kids, not criminals
Richard Mendel, the author of three national reports on juvenile justice and youth crime prevention, spent a year studying Missouri's system. He believes Missouri's attitude is the main reason it has been more successful than many states in dealing with young offenders.
"I think the basic difference is that Missouri treats these kids as good kids who need some help to get their lives straightened out," he said. "Most everywhere else, they are treated as criminals."
Maryland Juvenile Services Secretary Kenneth C. Montague Jr. sent a technical team to St. Louis in September to review the state's juvenile services program and see how it might be adapted for Maryland. Montague said he had visited several of Missouri's facilities previously and was impressed.
"These were tough kids from the streets who, when they were put in the right environment ... reverted back to being children," Montague said. "What you see is a system that puts these kids in a frame of mind where you can actually help them."
About 1,350 youths ages 14 to 17 are committed each year to Missouri's juvenile system, which includes 32 state-run residential treatment facilities. Missouri has separate housing facilities for boys and girls. Hogan Street houses only boys.
At Hogan Street and elsewhere, Missouri's "spare the rod, save the child" approach places a heavy emphasis on well-trained, highly motivated youth counselors working with small "treatment groups."
About 85 percent of the staff dealing directly with teens, called "youth specialists," hold college degrees, Steward said. They get starting pay of about $24,000 to $26,000 a year - slightly more than in Maryland, which hires mostly workers with a high school degree for $23,000.
The youths' daily routine resembles that of an old-fashioned boarding school: They sleep on bunk beds in rooms of 10 to 12 youths, attend school together in the facility, and play basketball or participate in other forms of recreation.
The key difference is the treatment group sessions, where youths spend 10 to 15 hours a week. They are encouraged to talk with one another in these sessions about their fears, hopes and desires.
Residents participate in a variety of exercises designed to make them take a close look at their lives.
One involves drawing a "geneogram" - a family tree that details their family's history. Most charts show parents, siblings or other close relatives who are or have been in prison.
The teens also write a year-by-year chronology of the good and bad highlights of their lives.
On the "good" side of his ledger for 1994, when he was 7 years old, a boy who is now 16 wrote that he "started playing football for the Jr. Rams." For the year he turned 8, the "bad" ledger said, "Rode in stolen car for first time."
The good entry for 1999: "Grandma bought me a bike." The bad one for 2000: "Stole mom's boyfriends car."
The youngsters are also made to think about how their crimes affected the lives of their victims, as well as members of their own families. Those who enter work programs set aside a portion of their earnings to repay their victims.
Many who have suffered physical or other abuse gradually let down their guard and talk about it for the first time as they grow to feel more comfortable and safe in their new environment.
Steward recalled one incident involving a teen who, during a group session, revealed that he had been sexually abused when he was 6.
"They were talking in group about what things scare you when you go to sleep, and he divulged for the first time that he was sexually abused," Steward said. It was something the boy had kept hidden for years.
'Our system offers hope'
Don Pokorny, who manages the state's Missouri Hills juvenile complex in St. Louis County, said it is critical to break through "the layers of distrust and resentment" that many youths have toward people in authority. The most important message that Missouri's system tries to convey, he said, is that they can make positive changes in their lives.
"Our system offers hope, where kids realize they can be more than just a thug," Pokorny said. "It's easy to be a thug and become part of the streets; it's hard to make changes and try to do something with your life."
Several youths who were interviewed at the Hogan Street center said their experience was far different from what they had expected.
Lamont Montgomery, a 17-year-old sex offender, said he earned a high school equivalency diploma during his stay. "I plan to start college," he said. "I took the ACT on June 3 and have been accepted to community college."
Daryl Robinson, 16, was initially arrested for his role in a car theft and then sent to Hogan Street after running away from another facility. He said he enjoys having the freedom to move about inside Hogan Street and hasn't encountered the violence he feared from other youths or staff.
"I thought it was going to be like a prison," he said. Instead, he said, "we're all like a family in the group."
The violent behavior that is commonplace in Maryland's juvenile facilities - youth-on-youth assaults or staff-on-youth abuse - is rare in Missouri, state officials say.
The state's reports on incidents from January through August showed six incidents in which staff reported that they were injured by youths in Missouri's residential facilities. Hogan Street, which houses about 32 youths and handles the state's toughest kids, reported three incidents of youth-on-youth violence for the eight-month period ending in June.
Steward said staff assaults on youths are rare. "I can recall three cases in the last five years," he said. "That is just not tolerated at all by this agency."
The record in Missouri is far different from that of Maryland's juvenile services system, as outlined in a U.S. Justice Department report in April.
Federal investigators described dangerous conditions for youths housed in Maryland's two biggest juvenile centers - the Hickey School and Cheltenham Youth Facility in Prince George's County. Among other problems, the report detailed assaults on residents by a poorly trained staff, some of whom had criminal records.
In Missouri, officials take an unusual approach to dealing with the occasional fight or violent outburst in a juvenile facility: The matter is handled by youths within the group, under the close supervision of staff, officials say.
The teens are taught how to get an unruly youngster on his back and pin down his limbs with the least amount of force possible until he stops behaving in a destructive manner, officials say.
This aspect of the Missouri program alarms some child advocates elsewhere, though Missouri officials say it rarely has to be used. Such self-policing by youths is a euphemism in some places for sanctioned gang violence, critics say.
Montague said he could not envision Maryland allowing youths to take part in restraining their peers in the state's juvenile facilities.
But the other aspects of Missouri's model are drawing praise in Maryland. State Del. Bobby A. Zirkin, a Baltimore County Democrat, says he plans to push for legislation requiring that Maryland develop a program for juvenile offenders modeled after Missouri's. "It's the right way to go," Zirkin said.
Phoebe Dickson, assistant manager of Missouri's Hillsboro Treatment Center outside St. Louis, said it can take time for some youths to adjust to an environment in which they are expected to make their beds, clean dorm rooms, go to school for six hours a day and meet other responsibilities.
"I tell them they might not have had rules in their own home, but you have rules here. And from here on out in life you're going to have to follow somebody else's rules, so you might as well start practicing now," Dickson said.
As important as what happens inside Missouri's juvenile facilities is the monitoring that takes place when youths go home.
Some enter day treatment programs as they make the transition back to their neighborhoods; others are assigned "trackers" - usually college students who work part time - to monitor what's going on in their lives.
There have been remarkable success stories, such as the young offender who went on to become student body president at the University of Missouri.
But staffers like Pokorny recognize that regardless of how much care and attention youths get, not all are going to be able to break free from their lives on the streets. "The valleys are low and the mountains are high," he said of working with juvenile offenders.
"You've got a lot of kids that want the help, and there are also those who are just not ready for help and keep resisting you," he said. "All you can do is offer them hope and give them options to better themselves."