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Missouri’s Unique Approach To Rehabilitating Teens in Juvenile Justice System
by MELANY BOULTON

Missouri is changing the way it approaches rehabilitating teens in its juvenile justice system, and it’s working. With a focus on therapy and education rather than punishment, the state closed its training schools and large facilities with minimal schooling in the early 1980s. It also did away with prison-issued uniforms and isolation cells. Now in Missouri, youth who commit crimes usually spend up to 12 months in residential centers with various levels of security, depending on the severity of the crime. Lesser crimes result in teens living in group homes or visiting day treatment centers. Every facility offers the same educational and treatment opportunity, regardless of the crimes committed.

(In this video from The Missouri Approach, young people talk about the success that Missouri’s juvenile justice system has had in their lives and share their positive plans for their futures.)

In a summary published in the 2012 summer edition of American Educator titled, Metamorphosis: How Missouri Rehabilitates Juvenile Offenders, author Jennifer Dubin explains how completely revamping the juvenile correctional system has transformed the way that the state approaches rehabilitating youth for the better. For example, Missouri’s Division of Youth Service (DYS) runs the juvenile facilities in the state, which are completely separate from the court’s jurisdiction once a youth is sentenced to a DYS facility.

Soon after a teen enters DYS care, a service coordinator works with the youth and their family to form an individualized treatment plan. One thing the organization works especially hard to avoid during these meetings, is placing blame on any party. “We have a basic, core set of philosophies that people want to do well and succeed, that they’re doing the best they can based on the resources available to them,” explains Tim Decker, director of DYS. “Poor behavior is a symptom of unmet needs and often an inappropriate way that young people and families are trying to meet their needs.”

Missouri’s methods have proven effective. Out of the approximately 2,200 young people committed to DYS custody each year, between 84 and 88 percent are productively engaged in society by the time they are released from DYS custody, whether in school or working. Also, recidivism rates are lower than other states. DYS methods make many strategies that are relied upon in other facilities unnecessary. For example, most residential centers do not have isolation rooms. Those with isolation rooms use them primarily for extra storage. In addition, while all secure residential centers have fences around them, only one of the moderate care facilities has a fence and employees are told not to rely on it.

“We tell our staff, ‘Don’t count on the fence. You need to provide the eyes-on, ears-on, hearts-on supervision,’” says Decker.

One of the most unique aspects of Missouri’s juvenile correctional system is that DYS is an accredited school district. Classroom sizes are small, usually around 10 students, and students are able to experience educational field trips and participate in outside activities such as community book clubs.

Just as important as the work young people do while they are under DYS’s care, is their transition back home once they have completed their time. To ease this change, individuals go home on two to three day passes before they move home completely. This process is beneficial for the youth and their families to readjust to living together. In addition, every residential facility offers “shelter status” in case a youth who has completed his DYS program has trouble making the transition home and needs to return for more support.

Missouri’s approach to juvenile justice has been so effective that Mark D. Steward, former director of DYS and one of the driving forces behind the Missouri model, formed the Missouri Youth Services Institute to replicate Missouri’s success around the country.


Melany Boulton is a digital communications intern at Prichard Communications, where she assists on several accounts, including Reclaiming Futures. She is a recent graduate from the University of Oregon with a degree in public relations and a minor in business administration.