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Teen’s sentencing sparks new discussion of Missouri Model

ST. LOUIS – Last week when a judge suspended the sentence of a 16-year-old convicted of murder and placed him in juvenile detention with a chance of parole in five years, it angered many and pleased some.

The teen, Justin Mathews, was found guilty of killing a retired city police officer after attempting to rob him. Mathews will be eligible for parole at age 21 should he complete the detention program.

The retired police sergeant, who had later worked in the juvenile division, was Ralph Harper, 67. 

Family friend Kevin Cummins described Harper as a “cops’ cop,” who wanted the best for youths he met, as well as “somebody that everybody looked up to,” according to ksdk.com last year. 

Harper was reportedly parking his car, on his way to babysit great-great-nephews, when Mathews and accomplice Jalynn Garner tried to carjack him. Mathews shot and killed Harper in the attempt. 

Family members, fellow police officers and residents were angry and felt that the punishment didn’t fit Mathews’ crimes.  

“If you kill somebody during a crime, you shouldn’t be able to get out of jail in five years,” said Brandy McGrath, who last week was robbed at gunpoint while working at a discount store in south St. Louis.

Had a customer not entered the store while two robbers had McGrath and three other workers in the rear of the store, she believes, they all would have been killed. 

“How do you just let someone like that go?” McGrath, still shaken, asked. She believes in the death penalty. 

On the other side of the argument are people such as Jeanette Culpepper, founder of Families Advocating Safe Streets (FASS). 

She believes that many juveniles, specifically blacks, encounter circumstances including designed poverty that render their lives unstable and push them down into the seamy side of life. Because of that, she believes they deserve an extra chance. 

“They should be punished when they do wrong, but a lot of these kids need help to get on the right road,” Culpepper said. “Sometimes they don’t have the upbringing and opportunities that may make them good citizens.”

In 2020, Culpepper will start supporting and pushing for efforts such as the Dual Jurisdiction Program. It’s the program that made Mathews’ alternative sentencing possible. 

The Dual Jurisdiction Program was established by the Division of Youth Services here and known as the Missouri Model. The Dual Jurisdiction Program is a blended sentencing option in which a juvenile and an adult sentence are simultaneously imposed, with the execution of the adult sentence suspended.  

As such, the Division of Youth Services (DYS) operates, throughout the state, secure facilities that are more dorm-like than jail-like. The program’s education and treatment components include group counseling, individual counseling, academic training and vocation preparation. 

Treatment emphasizes: 

  • Development of effective communication and problem-solving skills. 
  • Recognition of and working on patterns of poor decision-making. 
  • Identification of the various elements associated with negative behaviors and restorative justice and victim empathy.  

The Prison Policy Initiative, a nonprofit public policy think tank based in Massachusetts that fights mass incarceration, hailed the program as very successful. 

Another nonprofit, the Annie E. Casey Foundation, which is devoted to helping at-risk children, issued in 2005 a report that praised the Missouri Model. The report, “Reinventing the Practice of Rehabilitating Youthful Offenders,” measured three-year outcomes in which youths were overwhelming successfully completing programs.  

When 1,120 youths were released, 65.4 percent (732) of them were law-abiding (no recommitment to DYS or adult prison/probation). Only 8.5 percent (95) of them ended up in adult prison. 

In the Missouri Model, 74.7 percent of youth confined in DYS made at least one year of academic success (in reading and math) for every year of confinement. The national average is 25 percent. 

In summary, the report concluded that whereas youth jails are routinely found to be  unsafe, unhealthy and unconstitutional, the Missouri Model is not. Missouri’s “award-winning approach for dealing with the most hardened juvenile offenders is producing incredible results with less money.” 

The author of the report, Richard A. Mendel, said DYS’ success and the entire Missouri Model “depends on helping troubled and chronically delinquent young people make deep and lasting changes in how they behave, think, view themselves and foresee their futures.” 

He added that, in many ways, the Missouri approach to juvenile correction “requires swimming against the current” and that “Missouri’s methods challenge conventional wisdom and tough-on-crime political orthodoxy, upsetting bureaucratic norms, and they demand constant creativity, commitment, and compassion from staff.”

Bill Beene

bill.beene@thenorthsider.com Bill Beene was born and raised in north St. Louis. He has been a journalist for 12 years. He enjoys cooking and roller skating. He lives in the historic Ville neighborhood.

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