A sea change is on the horizon in juvenile corrections. 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.
Unfortunately, the record of large juvenile corrections facilities is dismal. 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 commonplace. The costs of correctional incarceration vastly exceed those of other approaches to delinquency treatment with equal or better outcomes, and the evidence 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.”
Thankfully, the winds of change are beginning to blow in juvenile corrections. A new wave of reform is gathering force, dual-powered by a growing recognition that the conventional practices aren’t getting the job done, and by the accumulating evidence that better results are available through a fundamentally different approach.
Actually there are two fundamentally different approaches. One is to 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. In recent years, a number of states (including Alabama, California, Louisiana, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, and Texas, plus the District of Columbia) and localities (including Chicago, Detroit, Albuquerque, and Santa Cruz) have systematically reduced their confined youth populations.
The second 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. Departing sharply from the age-old training school model, Missouri has eschewed large, prisonlike correctional institutions in favor of smaller, regionally dispersed facilities.
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.