Juvenile Offenders Fare Better in Treatment Than Corrections

A Need for Change

For more than a century, the predominant model for the treatment, punishment, and rehabilitation of serious youthful offenders has been confinement in a large, congregate-care correctional facility. In most states, these institutions still house the bulk of all incarcerated youth and still consume the lion’s share of taxpayer spending on juvenile justice.

The outcomes for juveniles  placed in these large corrections facilities is dismal:

Even though many youth confined in these training schools are not serious or chronic offenders, recidivism rates are uniformly high.

Violence and abuse inside the facilities are alarmingly common

The costs of correctional incarceration vastly exceed those of other approaches to delinquency treatment with equal or better outcomes

Eevidence shows that incarceration in juvenile facilities has serious and lifelong negative impacts on confined youth.

According to Barry Feld, a leading juvenile justice scholar at the University of Minnesota, “Evaluation research indicates that incarcerating young offenders in large, congregate-care juvenile institutions does not effectively rehabilitate and may actually harm them.” In fact, writes Feld, “A century of experience with training schools and youth prisons demonstrates that they constitute the one extensively evaluated and clearly ineffective method to treat delinquents.”

There are two fundamentally different approaches that can produce better outcomes, at a lower cost.

  • First, we can substantially reduce the population confined in juvenile correctional institutions by screening out youth who pose minimal dangers to public safety—placing them instead into cost-effective, research- and community-based rehabilitation and youth development programs.
  • Second, an approach devised by the State of Missouri’s juvenile corrections agency, the Division of Youth Services (DYS), aims at the small minority of youth offenders who must be removed from the community to protect public safety.

o    Instead of placing these youth in a large  prison-like training-school setting, they have  smaller, regionally dispersed facilities.

o    And instead of standard-fare correctional supervision, Missouri offers a demanding, carefully crafted, multi-layered treatment experience designed to challenge troubled teens and to help them make lasting behavioral changes and prepare for successful transitions back to the community.

The Missouri Model


In recent years, Missouri’s approach has been gaining widespread interest, and praise from such agencies as the American Youth Policy Center and the Annie E. Casey Foundation. In 2007, the New York Times ran an editorial labeling Missouri’s approach “the right model for juvenile justice,” National Public Radio aired an in-depth feature on Missouri’s juvenile correc­tions system, and the Associated Press ran a lengthy article highlighting Missouri’s youth corrections success on its national newswire. In September 2008, Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government named the Missouri Division of Youth Services winner of its prestigious “Innovations in American Government” award in children and family system reform, and in 2009, ABC television aired an hour-long edition of its news magazine, Primetime, devoted entirely to the Missouri youth corrections model.



  • In Arizona, Indiana, and Maryland, the per­centage of youth sentenced to adult prison within three years of release from a juvenile facility are 23.4 percent, 20.8 percent, and 26 percent, respectively.
  • Just 8.5 percent of youth discharged from Missouri’s DYS cus­tody in 2005 were sentenced to either prison or a 120-day adult correctional program within three years of release.
  • In Florida, 28 percent of youth released from residential confinement in 2003–2004 were either recommitted to juvenile custody for a new offense or sentenced to adult prison or probation within one year of release. Among DYS youth released in 2005, the comparable rate was just 17.1 percent.
  • Missouri’s juvenile recidivism results are exceptionally strong compared with states like Texas and Arizona that re-incarcerate large numbers of youth for violating proba­tion and parole rules. In those states, 43 percent (TX) and 52 percent (AZ) of youth are re-incarcerated in adult or juvenile cor­rectional facilities within three years for a new offense or rule violation. In Missouri, the rate is 24 percent.
  • The New Jersey Juvenile Justice Commission released a recidivism study in 2007 showing that 36.7 percent of youth released from the state’s juvenile correctional facilities in 2004 were either re-incarcerated in juvenile facili­ties for a new offense or sentenced to adult prison within two years.
  • The comparable rate for Missouri youth released in 2005 was 14.5 percent.


  • Assaults against youth  in the 97 facilities participating in the Council of Juvenile Cor­rectional Administrators’ Performance-based Standards (PbS) project are four-and-a-half times as common as in Missouri facilities, and assaults on staff are more than 13 times as common.
  • Meanwhile, PbS facilities use mechanical restraints 17 times as often as DYS, and they use isolation more than 200 times as often.1
  • Not a single youth in DYS custody has committed suicide in the more than 25 years since the agency closed its trainings schools.

Educational progress.

  • The National Council on Crime and Delinquency has estimated that, an average of just 25 percent of confined juvenile offenders nationwide make a year of academic progress for every year in custody.
  • In Missouri, three-fourths advance at least as fast as a typical student in public school. And, in 2008, one-fourth of all youth exiting a DYS facility after their 16th birthdays completed their secondary education.

Positive transitions to community.

  • In most states, a high percentage of youth remain disconnected from school and work follow­ing release.
  • DYS employs a comprehensive case management system and provides intensive aftercare support to facilitate school enrollment and post-release success of formerly confined youth. In 2008, 85.3 percent of youth exiting DYS were productively engaged in school and/or employment at the time of discharge.


  • Including fringe benefits and other costs not reflected in the official DYS budget, total youth corrections spending in Missouri is about $87 million, or $155 for each young person of juvenile age (10 to 16 for Missouri), this cost to taxpayers is lower than or comparable to the juvenile corrections systems in most states—and substantially less than some.
  • The greatest source of savings generated by the Division of Youth Services derives from the success of program graduates in avoiding future crimes. 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

What are the keys to the Missouri Model’s success?

The leaders of the Missouri Division of Youth Services note the values and beliefs of their program:

The three most important DYS beliefs are:

  1. that all people—including delinquent youth—desire to do well and succeed
  2. that with the right kinds of help, all youth can (and most will) make lasting behavioral changes and succeed
  3. that the mis­sion of youth corrections must be to provide the right kinds of help, consistent with public safety, so that young people make needed changes and move on to successful adult lives.

and their agency-wide commitment to helping delinquent youth make deep and lasting changes that enable them to avoid negative (criminal, anti-social, self-destructive) behaviors and to begin on a pathway to success.

DYS has built a unique therapeutic treatment system epitomized by six core characteristics.

1.  Missouri places youth who require confinement into smaller facilities located near the youths’ homes and families, rather than incarcerating them in large, far-away, prisonlike training schools.

  • Whereas most youth confined in state juvenile correctional facilities nationwide are housed in institutions with more than 150 beds, the largest of Missouri’s 32 residential youth corrections programs has only 50 beds. DYS has divided the state into five regions, each of which offers a four-level continuum of programs, including: non-residential community care for the least serious offend­ers, many of whom are placed into one of Missouri’s 10 “day treatment” centers;group homes, which house 10 to 12 less-serious youth offenders at a time; moderate security facilities, many of them situated on state parks, which typically house 20 to 50 youth at a time; and secure care facilities for the most serious offenders.
  • Regardless of the level of care, DYS facilities are designed and furnished in a distinctly non-correctional style. At every level, youth sleep not in cold concrete cells but in carpeted, warmly appointed dorm rooms. Youth are permitted to dress in their own clothes, not correctional uniforms. Little security hardware of any type is visible in DYS facilities. Instead, facility walls are adorned with hand-made posters and color­ful bulletin boards displaying residents’ writings and art work.

2.Missouri places youth into closely supervised small groups and applies a rigorous group treatment process offering extensive and ongoing individual attention, rather than isolating confined youth in individual cells or leaving them to fend for themselves among their peers.

In every DYS residential facility, young people spend virtually every minute, night and day, with their treatment team. The teams, which typically number 10 to 12 youth, sleep in the same dorm room, eat together, study together, exercise together, and attend daily treatment sessions together. The small groups helps the treatment process to be focused and intense. Rather than facing isolation or punishment for engaging in disruptive, disrespectful, or destructive behavior, youth are called upon to explain their thoughts and feelings, explore how the current misbehavior relates to the lawbreaking that resulted in their incarceration, and reflect on how their actions impact others. And the youth’s peers provide a pro-social group in which negative behaviors can be confronted.

3.  Missouri places heavy emphasis on keeping youth safe not from only physi­cal aggression but also from ridicule and emotional abuse; and it does so through constant staff supervision and positive peer relationships, rather than through coercive techniques that are common in most youth correctional facilities.

DYS maintains safety through intensive around-the-clock supervision by highly motivated, highly trained staff constantly interacting with youth to create an environ­ment of trust and respect

4. Missouri helps confined youth develop academic, pre-vocational, and communications skills that improve their ability to succeed following release—along with crucial insights into the roots of their delinquent behavior and new abilities to acknowledge and solve personal problems.

a. Fostering self-awareness and communications skills. DYS staff constantly solicit young people’s thoughts and treat their ideas and feelings respectfully. When young people misbehave, DYS staff don’t provide consequences, but instead require youth to explain their actions and consider their impact on others, and they encourage other youth to voice their opinions and provide support.

b. Pursuing academic progress. DYS takes an unconventional approach to education by teaching youth together in their treatment groups regardless of aptitude and prior academic achievement. A certified teacher plus another youth specialist work with each class of just 10 to 12 students, creating ample opportunities for individualized attention.

c. Providing opportunities for hands-on learning. In addition to classroom learning, DYS provides opportunities for youth to apply their skills in real-world contexts. DYS provides actual work experience for more than 900 youth per year. DYS youth also participate regularly in com­munity service projects

5.     Missouri reaches out to family members and involves them both as partners in the treatment process and as allies in planning for success in the aftercare transition, rather than keeping families at a distance and treating them as the source of delinquent youths’ problems.

a.  Immediate outreach and ongoing consultation. As soon as any young person is placed in state custody, the DYS service coordina­tor meets with parents. DYS facility staff and service coordinators actively encourage family members to attend visiting hours and will facilitate the family’s transportation

b. Family therapy. 25 to 30 percent of DYS youth participate in family therapy. Therapy focuses on helping parents and youth to jointly change negative family dynam­ics and create an alliance to support the youth’s continued success.

c.  Partnership in release planning and aftercare. DYS service coordinators involve parents extensively in planning for every young per­son’s release and then check in regularly with parents and family members in the crucial reentry period following release.

6.     DYS provides considerable support and supervision for youth transitioning home from a correctional placement—including intensive aftercare planning prior to release, and close monitoring and mentoring in the first crucial weeks follow­ing release.

a.  Pre-release planning. Before any young person leaves a DYS facility, the youth’s service coor­dinator works with the young person and his/her family members, plus staff members from the youth’s treatment team, to develop plans for reenrolling in school and to identify employment opportunities and/or extracur­ricular activities. Also, youth and parents agree to rules and expectations, and can practice them during brief home passes.

b.Continuing custody. Following release, most youth remain under DYS supervision on aftercare status, typically for four to six months. DYS retains full custody of the youth, including the authority to return the young person to residential confinement if he or she experi­ences problems or shows signs of falling into anti-social and delinquent behavior patterns.

c. Monitoring and mentoring in the commu­nity. While on aftercare, youth have regular meetings and phone calls with their service coordinators. Many are also assigned a “community-based mentor,” who serves as a role model and confidante for the youth, and who provides an extra point of contact for DYS to monitor how well the young person is faring in the community.


DYS is a group treat­ment approach that employs many tech­niques to individualize the treatment process for each young person:

• Beginning the very first day of their commit­ment, DYS assigns a single staff person—known as a service coordinator—to oversee his or her case before, during, and after placement in a DYS facility.

• In over 80 percent of cases, judges committing a youth to DYS custody apply an indetermi­nate sentence that grants DYS the right to adjust the length of confinement based on the youth’s progress in treatment and readiness to return safely to community life.

• DYS regions employ a level system to track progress and determine each young person’s readiness for release.

• At every residential DYS facility, each group convenes daily for a group treatment session where youth talk about their personal histo­ries, their future goals, and the roots of their delinquent behavior.

• Every youth in a DYS facility is guided and supervised by a staff mentor—often referred to as a “one-on-one”—throughout his or her time in the facility.


Unlike many states, Missouri does not allow the use of pepper spray, nor does it permit demeaning or potentially dangerous tech­niques such as hog-ties, face-down restraints, or electrical shocks. Mechanical restraints such as handcuffs and shackles are permitted only in rare emergencies. Isolation is rarely used.