Modeling the Good: A Future for Juvenile Justice Reform

Our juvenile justice system is in need of reform. While much effort has already gone into creating better alternatives for incarcerated youth, our states and officials have been slow to act. Modeling the good ideas and solutions that have been proven to work is an easy and necessary step forward - and a step away from many of the damaging trends we see today. Missouri is one encouraging example of reform that may present a possible justice model for our system as a whole. As we explore this state’s model, it becomes increasingly evident that the way youth are shaped before they return to their families and communities matters.

Between 70 and 80 percent of incarcerated youth are rearrested two or three years after their release for new offenses. As a result, they often miss out on educational opportunities, do damage to their future employability, and are removed from their support networks for long periods of time.

Our dependence on juvenile detention centers has been steadily rising over time despite shrinking crime rates among youth. What’s often intended as a temporary solution has turned into a catch-all for troubled youth, 70 percent of whom are detained for non-violent offenses. Where our civic institutions have fallen short, our government has also failed to reverse negative patterns and promote societal well-being. An over reliance on these facilities has begun to model a form of mass detention seen in adult prisons. According to a report from the Justice Policy Institute, “there is credible and significant research that suggests that the experience of detention may make it more likely that youth will continue to engage in delinquent behavior, and that the detention experience may increase the odds that youth will recidivate, further compromising public safety.”

The way youth are shaped before they return to their families and communities matters.

Learning what it means to provide opportunity for youth both preemptively and after they enter the system is a task for all who engage in public life. The state of Missouri recognized these collateral consequences and sought an alternative approach. As a result, the recidivism rate dropped to  less than nine percent of youth.

One of the main pillars of the Missouri Model involves getting kids out of large-scale detention centers, and into smaller facilities. Instead of ending up far away from their families, a focus has been put on keeping them as close to home as possible. Family and community members are then able to serve as a support system to their children and join in therapy and reconciliation processes. Including one’s family in therapy is an extremely positive step that allows for plans to be made for a youth’s transition out of detention and back into society. Something as simple as having a well thought out plan or set of goals markedly cuts down on recidivism, and increases the number of youth who go on to make progress in both work and school.  

A second pillar of the Missouri Model focuses on getting youth into smaller groups where they have greater, ongoing individual attention. Traditionally youth spend a large portion of their time alone in cells, which can cause major psychological harm. When they are outside their cells, they tend to be in large crowds, which can invoke violence. The goal of many of these steps has been to make facilities more humane. As a result of changes such as these, Missouri has seen a host of positive changes, and the suicide rate of youth in custody has dropped to zero.

A third and significant factor contributing to Missouri’s success is the reduction of further trauma to youth once they have entered detention centers. This includes decreasing one’s risk of physical abuse and emotional ridicule from both staff and one’s peers. Many youth detention centers follow a model common in adult prisons where punishment tactics like isolation are used as a means of coercion. Missouri has taken steps to replace the supervisory role often placed on guards with trained, youth-development staff. These staff encourage cooperation and peer to peer support methods. They also work to build social capital within facilities, and help youth realize what the Annie E. Casey Foundation calls “the roots of their delinquent behavior … and solve personal problems.” Youth are constantly asked how they are doing both physically and emotionally, creating a safe space that allows them build healthy, sustainable patterns.

According to “The Missouri Model” report,  “Criminologists estimate that steering just one high-risk delinquent teen away from a life of crime saves society $3 million to $6 million in reduced victim costs and criminal justice expenses, plus increased wages and tax payments over the young person’s lifetime.” The Missouri Model has saved money because it reduces the length of time youth are in the system, while reducing their likelihood of committing future crimes. As a result of these positive results, the Missouri Model has garnered political support for over three decades.

Unfortunately, a major factor sustaining a broken juvenile detention system - both in Missouri and elsewhere - still remains. Reducing the number of youth who are incarcerated to begin with presents a major challenge for the way we look at youth development in schools, law enforcement, and community organizations. Prevention mechanisms are crucial in order to decrease the alarming number of youth who are detained. Many of these youth are predisposed to a number of harmful contributing factors, from poverty to exposure to violence. Subsequently, three out of four youth suffer from mental health or substance abuse issues - in comparison to the general youth population, mental illnesses are three times higher. It’s clear that many youth are caught in the justice system as a result of improper resources before they were arrested. Working to nullify the causes of incarceration would not only decrease the number of youth who are arrested, but provide better and more peaceful lives to many.

While the rich and promising patterns of the Missouri Model go far beyond what we have covered, it’s clear that there is a promising model at work for our juvenile detention centers. Deviating from the norms in our adult prisons and seeking to understand the developmental challenges and fragility unique to youth is an ever important public justice task. We should all seek to be advocates for the generations of youth who will be involved in the court system, and knowing what we currently know, we can share information that promotes dignity and better outcomes for all who are involved.

-Jenny Hyde is a recent alumna of Gordon College, where she received her degree in International Affairs. She is currently living and working in Washington, D.C.