HOPE FOR REHABILITATION - OUTSIDE PRISON WALLS
ANTIQUATED, unsanitary, scandal-plagued Montrose School went out of business March 18. The century-old ``reform school'' for delinquent youths is the most recent prison for children in America to be shut down. That a prison could be shut down in 1988 - a time when the public has become almost paralyzed with fear of juvenile crime - is no minor miracle. If anything, there are strong pressures to clamp down harder on juvenile delinquents. Indeed, in the past 10 years, America has moved away from the rehabilitative ideals embodied in a separate justice system for kids.Skip to next paragraph
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Borrowing from the more punitive system of adult corrections, states are instituting harsher penalties for some juvenile offenders and locking up more of them in reform or training schools. At least half the states also have laws that make it easier to prosecute children as adults, a trend that each year puts 4,000 juveniles behind bars in state prisons.
The ``get tough'' approach has been led by judges who use lockups as a favorite sentencing option; by prosecutors who claim juvenile offenders are becoming increasingly violent; and by correctional officers who say youths must be removed from society to be rehabilitated.
But other juvenile-justice experts continue to press for youth rehabilitation outside a prison setting - closer to the community where delinquents come from and where they will have to return after their release. And, very slowly, more states are starting to choose community-based alternatives over large correctional institutions like Baltimore's Montrose.
States as diverse as Oregon, Florida, Texas, and Utah are closing or drastically reducing the size of juvenile prisons in favor of other alternatives. This quiet revolution - which began in 1972 when Massachusetts set the juvenile-justice world on its ear by abruptly closing its troubled training schools - is spreading.
For instance, the kids who used to be in the Montrose School are now being supervised in smaller, community-based programs.
To Linda D'Amario Rossi, the Maryland official who dared to challenge the status quo, there was no choice. ``I've worked in jails and prisons, and I know there's another way,'' says Ms. Rossi, the indomitable director of the Juvenile Services Administration.
``Most of these kids need a smaller setting, a more individualized setting. You'd go into their ward [at Montrose] and they'd be pulling at you, touching you, wanting your attention. They were not destructive and violent kids who'd hurt you; they were in need of direction and supervision,'' she says about the Montrose facility. FLYING in the face of this trend to reduce reliance on prisons is California, with the largest, most overcrowded prison system for youthful offenders in the United States. The increase in youth violence there, especially gang activity, has increased public pressure to lock up more delinquents.
``Only a few states have gone hog wild on a punishment kick, but California is one,'' says Barry Krisberg, president of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency (NCCD), based in San Francisco. ``For the past five or six years, it's been going through a frenzy of incarcerating its kids.''
California now holds the dubious distinction of locking up more kids per capita than any other state in the Union. Currently, 9,000 wards between the ages of 13 and 25 are sardined into facilities designed for 5,840. Eight years ago, the number of wards in California Youth Authority (CYA) institutions stood at 4,500 - half what it is now.
Three main factors have driven up the number, according to Dr. Krisberg, a nationally recognized expert on juvenile justice:
Violence. California has one of the highest rates of violent juvenile crime, he says, and judges have little choice but to sentence these young offenders to the CYA.
Length of stay. In 1980, wards stayed an average of 13 months at the CYA. Now, they stay about 19 months. For every month the average stay increases, the CYA needs 400 more beds at an annual cost of $25,000 each. Krisberg says there is no evidence that longer sentences will reduce the juvenile crime rate. In fact, he says, the longer a kid stays locked up the more likely he is to commit new crimes.