Rehabilitation of Juvenile Offenders Requires New Model

In Missouri, the DYS approach to juvenile offenders is more successful and cost effective than other youth correctional programs. It depends on helping troubled and chronically delinquent young people make deep and lasting changes in how they behave, think, view them­selves, and foresee their futures.

DYS has certain beliefs about youth and the change process that facilitate the positive changes that are sought

Beliefs About Youth

Every young person wants to succeed—and can succeed.

No matter how serious their past crimes, and no matter how destructive their current attitudes and behaviors, all youth hunger for approval, acceptance, and achievement.

Change can only result from internal choices made by the young people themselves.

Delin­quent youth can’t be “scared straight”; they cannot be reformed through a military-style boot camp; and few will be deterred from crime by fear of punishment. Rather, change happens through a process that helps them to adopt more positive behaviors, seek out more positive peers, and embrace more positive goals.

Relationships are critical to overcoming resistance and fostering positive change.

Youth respond best and overcome resistance most readily when they know that staff members care about them and expect them to suc­ceed. Young people also benefit enormously both from helping and being helped by other youth in the treatment group.

Youth are more likely to succeed in a safe, nurturing, and non-blaming environment.

It is critical that youth be listened to and guided by trusted adults, encouraged to try out new behaviors, and treated with patience, accep­tance, and respect.

Every young person is unique.

Each DYS youth has fallen into delinquent behaviors in response to his or her own individual circumstances, and each will make the decisions to change and grow—or not to—for his or her own personal reasons.

Many youth lapse into delinquency as a coping mechanism in response to earlier abuse, neglect, or trauma.

These underlying difficulties must be acknowledged and addressed before change is likely to occur. 11

Delinquent youth typically suffer from a lack of emotional maturity.

They have an absence of insight into their own behavior patterns; an inability to distinguish between feelings and facts, perception and reality; along with an underdeveloped capacity to communicate their feelings clearly and express disagree­ment or anger responsibly.

All behavior, no matter how maladaptive or destructive, has an underlying emotional pur­pose.

Therefore, the emotions expressed by young people during treatment should not be judged, lest youth withhold their feelings and lose out on crucial opportunities for personal growth.

Most youth entering custody have very low con­fidence in their ability to succeed as students, or adults, and lack exposure to mentors or positive role models.

Enabling youth to taste success in the classroom and to develop trusting relationships with DYS staff (and other caring adults) can provide an invaluable impetus for them to embrace healthy atti­tudes and adopt a law-abiding lifestyle.

Parents and other family members remain the most crucial people in young people’s lives—and the keys to their long-term success.

Families retain enormous influence over youth, for good or ill. Rebuilding family relationships is a powerful motivator for virtually every young person who enters a DYS facility.

Beliefs About the Change Process

The therapeutic process leading to sustained behavioral change typically involves five core stages:


Young people enter this safe and therapeutic environment and become acclimated to the routines and expectations of life in a DYS facility, where the aggressive or belligerent behaviors many have relied upon habitually for self-defense and stature are neither required nor rewarded.

Personal growth and self-discovery.

During their stays in DYS facilities, youth are frequently asked to think and talk about their feelings and to discuss their behaviors. Gradually, youth gain insights into their own thought processes and behavior patterns; identify the emotional triggers that typically lead them to act out and lose emotional control; examine how current behaviors are connected to past experiences and the dynamics in their own families; and develop the capacity to express their emotions clearly, calmly, and respectfully—even negative emo­tions like anger and fear.

Integration and mastery.

Youth begin apply­ing their new self-knowledge and learning to behave consistently as mature, responsible, and focused-on-the-future young adults. In this phase, youth learn to avoid emotional outbursts and aggressive or self-destructive behavior by setting personal boundaries and avoiding situations that provoke these reac­tions; and (often through family therapy) they begin to identify, discuss, and resolve underlying family tensions and devise strate­gies in advance to address family problems that might arise when they return home.


Youth begin talking with service coordinators, facility staff, parents, and others to create a positive and realistic plan for their futures—where they will continue their education, what career they might want to pursue, where they will look for short-term employment, and how they will avoid negative peers and dangerous temptations that might lead them back into custody.


The MISSOURI MODEL: Reinventing the practice of rehabilitating youthful offenders  By Richard A Mendel