With the prisons filled to bursting, state governments are desperate for ways to keep more people from committing crimes and ending up behind bars. Part of the problem lies in the juvenile justice system, which is doing a frighteningly effective job of turning nonviolent childhood offenders into mature, hardened criminals. States that want to change that are increasingly looking to Missouri, which has turned its juvenile justice system into a nationally recognized model of how to deal effectively with troubled children.
The country as a whole went terribly wrong in this area during the 1990s, when high-profile crimes prompted dire predictions of teenage “superpredators” taking over the streets. The monsters never materialized. In fact, juvenile crime declined. But by the close of the decade, four-fifths of the states had made a regular practice of housing children, even those who committed nonviolent crimes, in adult jails. Studies now show that those children were considerably more likely to become serious criminals — and to commit violence — than children handled through the juvenile justice system.
But all juvenile justice systems are not created equal. Most children taken into custody are committed to large, unruly and often dangerous “kiddie prisons” that very much resemble adult prisons. The depravity and brutality that characterizes these places were underscored in Texas, where allegations of sexual abuse by workers prompted wholesale firings and a reorganization of the state’s juvenile justice agency.
Missouri has abandoned mass kiddie prisons in favor of small community-based centers that stress therapy, not punishment. When possible, young people are kept near their homes so their parents can participate in rehabilitation that includes extensive family therapy. It is the first stable, caring environment many of these young people have ever known. Case managers typically handle 15 to 20 children. In other state systems, the caseloads can get much higher.
The oversight does not end with the young person’s release. The case managers follow their charges closely for many months and often help with job placement, therapy referrals, school issues and drug or alcohol treatment. After completing the program, officials say, only about 10 percent of their detainees are recommitted to the system by the juvenile courts.
A law-and-order state, Missouri was working against its own nature when it embarked on this project about 25 years ago. But with favorable data piling up, and thousands of young lives saved, the state is now showing the way out of the juvenile justice crisis.
A New York Times Editorial October 28, 2007