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Taking a Therapeutic Approach to Juvenile Offenders: The “Missouri Model"

In the early 1970s, the Missouri Division of Youth Services (DYS) took its first steps toward radically changing the way it dealt with youthful offenders remanded to its custody.  For years, like most states, it had incarcerated juveniles convicted of felony or misdemeanor offenses in large quasi-penal facilities called “training schools.”  Instead, DYS began establishing smaller “cottage-style” residential programs that emphasized rehabilitation over punishment and applied a therapeutic approach to its troubled young charges.  Over the next three decades, DYS expanded this approach to encompass its entire juvenile offender population.  By the mid-2000s, the “Missouri model,” as it became known, was perhaps the most admired—and, many considered, most effective—juvenile corrections system in the US.

This case describes the Missouri model—including the population it serves, the educational and therapeutic programs it offers, and the frontline staff of “youth specialists” it employs to work closely with young offenders.  The case also provides an overview of Missouri’s impressively low recidivism figures and a brief discussion of the complexities of comparing such figures among states.  It concludes with a discussion of the challenges the Missouri DYS has faced in sustaining its highly regarded, but demanding, approach over many years.  The case can be used in classes on child welfare policy and criminal justice.