A Looser Lockup

Get-tough programs for juvenile offenders have largely failed to reduce recidivism. Missouri has had success with a less punitive approach.
by | January 2006

By the time she was in her early teens, Teri knew exactly what she was going to be when she grew up. The bubbly Missouri teenager with the engaging smile planned to be a "meth head" and live in a trailer. Forget about working. She figured she would get by with money from the state. This seemed like a perfectly rational plan. She had several friends who lived in trailers, as did the middle-aged woman who supplied her with methamphetamine. Another friend from school lived in a meth lab, where her parents manufactured the drug. Teri says she was talked into using it because she always felt fat and was told that meth would be a good way to lose weight. After getting hooked, she introduced other friends to the highly addictive drug.

But Teri, who turns 17 this month, had trouble staying under the law enforcement radar. She became violent with the people closest to her, and the future she imagined for herself got derailed. After she punched and tried to strangle her mother, and hit her stepfather, the courts stepped in. Teri initially was sent to juvenile detention, where she sat behind bars for about a month. Then she was transferred to the Rosa Parks Center, a youth treatment facility, where the only doors with locks on them are the exits from the building.

Her roommates in the bunkbeds at Rosa Parks are girls with similarly troubled backgrounds. Unlike most juveniles who are caught breaking the law, however, these young women will spend a few months in a small-scale juvenile facility, rather than a large impersonal institution. That increases the likelihood that once they leave the corrections system, they will never return. After going through the treatment program Missouri uses with youth offenders--which forces them to be introspective and take responsibility for their actions and teaches skills to deal with their anger--only a small percentage of them wind up back in detention, or in prison later as adults. "The chances for success in the outside world are much greater if they're not mad at the world," says Paul Bolerjack, director of the state's Division of Youth Services.

Because of its low incidence of recidivism, Missouri's 30-year-old program has become a model for other states, many of which tried get- tough policies during the sharp increase in crime rates in the late 1980s and early '90s but didn't experience a marked decline in recidivism rates. About five years ago, Missouri started to get occasional requests from other states to come visit. Within the past two years, more than two dozen states have sent people to visit facilities there. Currently, Missouri is getting two to three requests per month. A Native American delegation and an international group are scheduled to visit in January. Officials from Illinois, Louisiana and Maryland are among those who already have toured Missouri's facilities and now are instituting changes based, in part, on what they learned.

Such widespread interest reflects not only the realization that rehabilitating and returning juveniles to their homes is better for the kids but also that this approach can result in huge cost savings. It takes a lot of money to house juveniles in youth or adult correctional facilities. The less time they're there, the fewer times they return and the lower the level of security, the less it costs the state.


When people think of juveniles held by state institutions, they often envision tough-looking teens warehoused in large buildings with bars on the windows. The Rosa Parks Center is a far cry from that image. About a dozen girls sleep in a cozy room in six wood-frame bunks with mauve bedspreads. It is saturated with sunlight during the day. Stuffed animals sit on top of beds after the girls make them in the morning.

The day unfolds much like a day at home might. They wake up at 6 a.m., eat breakfast, go to school, eat lunch, and then resume their schooling after lunch. But the schedule is rigid and there are strict rules they must follow. And after school, the teens, who can range in age from 12 to 18, participate in a treatment program that involves a lot of talking about and analyzing what got them into trouble.

While Missouri often manages to find distinctive settings for its juvenile facilities, the Rosa Parks Center is unique in that the girls are housed and schooled in a building on the campus of William Woods University that used to be a dorm for international students. The Division of Youth Services approached the small liberal arts college with the idea of locating juvenile offenders there and the school responded enthusiastically. "It was exciting, a great idea, says Jerrie Jacobs-Kenner, director of Woods' social work program. "It was no hard sell."

Having the youths on campus benefits everyone involved. William Woods has majors or courses in juvenile justice, criminology and social work. The girls sometimes go to classes to have discussions with college students studying juvenile justice issues. It is a learning experience for both groups. The girls also use the campus cafeteria, Tucker Dining Hall, which is located right behind the Rosa Parks Center. They eat together daily at one long table, among hundreds of college students.

By living on a campus, the Rosa Parks girls often begin to think about higher education in a new light. For some, no family member has ever been to college, and it seemed a daunting prospect. Teri now believes she could handle it. Jacobs-Kenner feels this is an important element of the Rosa Parks program. "They go back into the same environment," she notes. "Hopefully, they've developed some dreams for themselves."

When the youths go to meals or attend campus events, they are always accompanied by at least two adults. Even so, it wouldn't be hard to make a run for it, since they are not physically restrained in any way. Still, most of them want to work their way out of the system in a few months and never come back. "A lot of people hope to get out very quickly," says Teri. She and the other girls were placed at Rosa Parks because case workers believed they could be trusted with a degree of "freedom."


A decade ago, many states turned their backs on programs such as Missouri's. Their response to an explosion in crime rates, due in large part to the crack cocaine epidemic, was to follow a punitive adult corrections model and get tough on juvies. They sent them to boot camps or reform schools or simply warehoused them without teaching them skills or how to stay out of trouble when they left the facility. It hasn't seemed to work. "States with large institutions do lousy in terms of outcomes for kids," says Mark Soler, president of the Youth Law Center, a national public interest law firm. "It's not possible to run them in safe and humane ways." Soler has worked on juvenile justice reform throughout the country for 27 years.

In fact, it turned into a disaster in Maryland. Juveniles at one boot camp were terrorized by staff. They had to run a gauntlet of barking dogs when they entered at night. They were yelled at to do exercises, often forced to the ground to do them. Some were hit and lost teeth. "It was a very bad situation of physical abuse by staff," says Ken Montague, secretary of the Department of Juvenile Services, who found poor conditions when he arrived on the job a few years ago. "Some of those programs can work, but they're very difficult."

Missouri resisted the get-tough approach, with support from the government and community. Instead of cracking down harshly on those who entered the system, there was a dramatic expansion of bed space and continued emphasis on treatment in small facilities in the mid- 1990s. "We missed the era where other states had given up on juveniles and juvenile justice," says Gary Sherman, director of the Department of Social Services, a Cabinet-level position.

Missouri's approach seems to be working, although recidivism rates are notoriously hard to compare because states define recidivisim in different ways: Is it a return to a facility in six months? A year? Ever? A study by the Annie E. Casey Foundation in 2003 noted that "compared to states that measure recidivism in similar ways, Missouri's success rates are exceptional." In Maryland, for example, the percentage incarcerated as adults within three years of release from a juvenile corrections facility was 30 percent; in Missouri, it was 8 percent.

And the Show-Me State is doing it for less money than it cost to run the two large, institutional facilities--one for boys, one for girls-- that existed in the 1970s. Those are now being used by the adult corrections department.

The more security that's needed, the more expensive a facility tends to be. Rosa Parks costs $40,000 a year per bed, or $110 a day, a relatively modest amount compared with other states' youth detention facilities. "Keeping kids in the least restrictive environment is the best use of the taxpayer dollar," Bolerjack says. "For a small set of the population, that's all they need."

The Fulton Treatment Center is a high-security facility for teenage boys in Missouri. There is a fence around the perimeter, and the detainees are under locked supervision 24/7. But the living quarters are comfortable and homey. The floors are carpeted, and the boys sit on couches when they're in groups. There's a foosball table and two beds to a "room." The rooms have only half walls so the staff can watch their charges at all times. Groups of about a dozen live in "cottages" and go to class together in a main building with several classrooms Fulton costs $55,000 a year or $155 per day per bed.


One of the fundamental changes Missouri made that other states are now emulating was to separate youth services from adult corrections. The Illinois legislature, for example, recently passed a law creating a juvenile justice system that is distinct from the corrections department. For some time now, there's been a belief that when juvenile services are not separated out, they tend to be overwhelmed by the punitive nature of adult corrections, says Kurt Friedenauer, director of the Juvenile Division of the Illinois DOC. "The adult corrections model superimposes the prioritization of security and does not acknowledge, to the degree it could, the distinction between adult offenders and juvenile offenders."

In Missouri, small facilities are located in regions around the state so youths can be closer to their families. There are about 1,575 youths in the system on any given day. Some programs are short and intensive, and don't involve overnight stays. A couple of residential facilities are located in state parks, using former work camp facilities. The rural setting can benefit a teen from a rural environment. "We want to try to match the kid up with the different elements of the facility," Sherman says. "We don't want a one-size- fits-all. The more creativity we have on this continuum of care, the more developed it is, the greater likelihood of a strong system." Adds Soler, "What's so striking about Missouri is it set up programs in unlikely places and made it work."

Illinois already has restructured the state's eight juvenile facilities so teens are closer to their homes and families can get more involved. The newly created juvenile justice agency plans to chart a different course philosophically for how the state handles youth offenders, and officials are hoping to increase programming and services in facilities.

Maryland also is closing down large facilities and running a pilot program to provide regional services instead of sending youths to large state facilities far from home. The large facilities were not meant to serve the types of juveniles who come into the system now. Many have substance abuse or mental health problems and can hurt themselves or staff. Trying to address those issues, the legislature has called for operating much smaller facilities.

When Missouri's treatment program started, it was based in part on something called "positive peer culture," an approach promoted by Harry Vorrath, who co-wrote a book with that title in 1985 that became popular among those working in the therapeutic field. His premise is that when youths help and care for their peers, it inculcates positive values in them. Youths in Missouri spend a lot of time listening to and guiding each other.

The Youth Services Division also offers family therapy to those who can come to the facilities where their children are housed. When Sherman was arguing for funding to work with the families of kids in the early days of the program, he used the phrase, "It doesn't do as much good to return a clean bird to a dirty cage," which he dislikes now. But the point behind it still holds. "We began to see families not as the problem but the answer," he says. Too many times brothers and sisters would follow older siblings into detention. "It made sense to impact the family."

That kind of counseling requires sophisticated training, notes Montague of Maryland. Officials there want to adopt Missouri's requirement of a minimum of a bachelor's degree for most employees who staff the juvenile facilities. Training and education levels are uneven across the state now. "We need to be more aggressive in getting our people this training," he adds.

Another feature of Missouri's program that states are looking at is the dual-jurisdiction system. When juveniles are certified to stand trial as an adult for serious crimes, they can be screened and if they meet certain criteria, they get a "dual judgment." That means they go to a high-security facility, but they also get treatment and a mandatory review on their 17th and 18th birthdays. "If we catch the kids early enough and treat them instead of locking them up, maybe we can save them" from ending up in an adult facility, says Roy Richter, associate circuit judge in the Montgomery County Court system. "Most are a product of associations or environment."

Of the 35 youths Richter has assigned dual jurisdiction in his court, 16 were released on probation at 18 years old without going to adult prison. Of those, four had their probation revoked. "If only four of 16 sent out fail, that's a significantly better rate than what adults do," Richter says. The rest are underage and still in the program.


The original legislation setting up Missouri's program called for volunteer advocacy groups. Members of those groups routinely check on the facilities and kids in their region, and lobby and educate the legislature. They take legislators to facilities to show them how the youths are doing and how state money is spent, with the hope that the legislature will keep funding the program adequately. With term limits, the legislative memory is only eight years old, so the process of educating new legislators is never-ending. "Our main mission is to give them a better understanding of our programs and treatment services for the children," says Bill Parrish, one of the volunteers.

But he and others also use the opportunity to ask the youths how they are doing and if they are experiencing any problems in the facilities. He says the juveniles he talks to often tell him they feel safe where they are, and it's something they haven't felt before. They're never left alone. There's always someone awake and watching and making sure there are no shenanigans and no violence among the residents.

And when they leave, there's someone there to assist them "on the outside." The service coordinators who were assigned to oversee them from day one also meet and speak with them during "aftercare." They also can be assigned "trackers," who are paid an hourly fee to help with issues youths must deal with as they return to their home and school. "Trackers tend to be young people," says Bolerjack. "We try to get trackers close in age so they can be mentors."

Fifteen-year-old Jasmine is a Rosa Parks alum who has been back with her family since July. She brought her tracker Christina with her to have a conversation in Fulton about how she's doing. "I'm happy now," she says. "I'm not mad at the world. It was a good experience although I didn't think so when I got there." When friends or teachers make smart-aleck remarks about "being let out," or whether she's going to manage to stay in class, she has Christina as a mentor and friend to talk things out.

One other thing states might consider is Missouri's incentive subsidy. When running its two large institutions, Missouri found there was no way to manage the number of youths judges were sending to be housed. "You were an innkeeper," Sherman says. "You were running a hotel but couldn't control who came in through the front door. You couldn't hang a 'no vacancy' sight in front of the facility." Juveniles would have to be let out early when new ones arrived, even if they weren't ready. Rather than build more institutions and beds, the Youth Services Division came up with an "incentive subsidy."

DYS told judges that if they were able to reduce the number of youths sent to the state, it would be worth money that their counties could use to create local programs for youths. Judges were resistant at first. "No judge wants to feel like you've tied his hands," Sherman says. But soon some judges found they valued the dollars for local programs, halfway houses, juvenile officers, family counselors and crisis centers.

Instead of routinely sending kids off as a way to "clean up" the community, they began to work with them. "It gave us a partnership with the judiciary," Sherman says. When the judges feel they have no local services that are appropriate they still can send juveniles to the state.

Perhaps most indicative of the differences among programs around the country is the feeling visitors get when entering the facilities housing youth offenders. Missouri's are heartening, while others are scary and depressing. "I've been in lots of juvenile facilities around this country," says Soler. "You can feel the tension in the air when you walk in. They're all locked in, like mice in a cage. Missouri is totally different. There's a sense of respect and lightheartedness. People laugh."

Ellen Perlman
Ellen Perlman | Former columnist | mailbox@governing.com