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Back to the Future: New Attempts to Implement a Proven Model in Juvenile Justice
By Robert Winters, JD, Professor, School of Criminal Justice, Purdue Global University
Published: 01/28/2013

Deloreanbacktothefuture The U.S. juvenile justice system today faces the same pressures familiar to any government agency, particularly at the state level: budgets are dwindling, but the need for services is not. Dealing effectively with juvenile offenders has never been easy, and as program resources dry up and staffs shrink the merely challenging becomes daunting. In such circumstances it only makes sense to ask whether programs can be made simultaneously less expensive and more effective—even though that sounds like nothing more than a politician’s pipe dream.

But the answer, surprisingly enough, may be “yes.”

In the early 1980s, Missouri looked at its juvenile justice system and saw fundamental failure. Neither of two basic correctional functions—rehabilitation and the prevention of recidivism—was being met. Worse, in addition to the lack of improvement in juvenile offenders and the high recidivism rate, conditions within the system itself were becoming more violent and dangerous. At the time Missouri was using the model common to most states, relying on boot camps as well as traditional large prisons.

What replaced that broken system came to be known as the “Missouri Miracle.” Traditional facilities were replaced by 32 small housing units (with populations typically ranging from 10 to 30) that are not only located across the state so that juvenile offenders can remain close to home, but also bear little resemblance to a prison. They are more like a group home, staffed by highly-trained personnel who use an approach that emphasizes therapy and rehabilitation over punishment. The staff-offender ratio is very low as well.

Though it might seem that a less stringent security environment—these facilities do not even have fences—would be an invitation to escape, that has not been the case in Missouri. On average there are less than 50 per year. The state does operate eight isolation rooms for juvenile offenders and still has a traditional prison for offenders under age 17, but the isolation rooms have been only rarely used and the prison has contained less than five inmates for most years of the new program.

What qualified the “Missouri Miracle” as a miracle? Recidivism into the juvenile program is now under 8%. The rate of adult conviction of former juvenile offenders now hovers between 7% and 8% for a five-year period after concluding the program. New York’s juvenile system, by contrast, has an 89% male recidivism rate. In Illinois it was 50% in 2006-09, up from 33% in 1996-99. Roughly half of Missouri offenders return to school successfully, and another third earn high school diplomas or a GED while in the program. Compared to Missouri’s 91% education rate, the national average is 46%.

It might be reasonable to assume that such commendable results come at a high price, but in fact the opposite is true. New York’s cost is $210,000 per juvenile for a nearly 90% failure rate. The national average is around $100,000. The Missouri Miracle, on the other hands, costs about $50,000 per child annually.

Critics have pointed out several reasons why Missouri’s program has been successful but could not be replicated in most other states. One is the assertion that Missouri juveniles are in fact “different” from youth elsewhere, the assumption being that most of these offenders are white and rural, and guilty of relatively minor offenses. (Even granting this to be true, there is no explanation of why the Missouri Model would not work in states with similar demographics, such as Mississippi or Alabama.) However, many juveniles in the system come from St. Louis and Kansas City, which from a demographic and crime standpoint are comparable to urban centers elsewhere in the country. In fact, according to Census Bureau data in 2009 St. Louis had a homicide rate of 40.3 per 100,000 and Kansas City had a rate of 20.6, compared to 5.6 for New York City, 8.1 for Los Angeles, and 16.1 for Chicago—making both cities more deadly than America’s three largest and putting St. Louis ahead of even much-maligned Detroit, which had a 2009 homicide rate of 40.0. Another explanation is that Missouri sends its juvenile “hardcases” to prison rather than this program, but given the tiny population of the state’s one juvenile prison facility already cited this seems difficult to credit. Moreover, the system treats juveniles up to age 18 and in addition has a dual-sentencing option that can leave those convicted of the most serious offenses in the juvenile system until age 21. Critics also charge that the system does not treat offenders with mental health issues, with that and the hypothetical exclusion of hardcore offenders making the job of the juvenile system “too easy.” At one time Missouri did run a separate system for mental health cases, but that is no longer the case.

Given this level of success and the age of the Missouri Model, it is perhaps surprising that more jurisdictions have not moved to implement it. Only now, faced with failing juvenile systems of their own, are cities and states across the country deciding to embrace a new approach.

The District of Columbia began implementing the Missouri Model in 2009. Though its results have not been perfect—a middle school principal was killed by several juveniles who were under the supervision of the new program—the first facility based on the new model reduced its recidivism rate by about half.

Louisiana, which until 2004 treated its juvenile correctional system as part of the adult system and was notorious for horrific conditions, opened its flagship Bridge City facility in 2007. It serves male offenders ages 10 to 20 with sentences ranging from a minimum of six months to over two years. Although the state as a whole has not yet adopted the Missouri Model, Bridge City has achieved a recidivism rate of about 10%.

Other jurisdictions including New Mexico and San Jose, California are experimenting with the Missouri Model. If Missouri’s success can be replicated in places as different as Washington, D.C. and New Mexico, those results will presumably speak for themselves. Time will tell.

Corrections.com author, Robert Winters, holds a Juris Doctorate degree and is a Professor with Kaplan University. He is also a member of the National Criminal Justice Association and serves as a Western Regional Representative, a member of the National Advisory Board and their National Elections Committee.

Other articles by Winters


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  2. Carol Abrams on 01/29/2013:

    Thank you for recognizing Washington DC’ Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services. The agency is increasingly seen as a model by juvenile justice experts nationwide for effectively rehabilitating youth. The agency is applying an evidence-based approach to promote long-term public safety. It is holding youth accountable and working with them on a successful transition from adolescence to adulthood. We believe that even the most disadvantaged young person can develop positively when connected to the right mix of opportunities and supports, which is why we value so deeply our relationships with families, law enforcement, social services, schools, employers, neighborhoods, and our sister agencies. Submitted by DYRS' public information officer, Carol Abrams.

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