Most states incarcerate juvenile offenders in large “training schools.” Nationwide, 52 percent of juveniles confined in 1997 were held in facilities with a population above 110. Youths are typically housed in small cells, disconnected from the the social forces that drove them to criminality—and to which they will sooner or later return, the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s magazine reports. Recidivism studies routinely find that half or more of training school youth are convicted of a new offense within three years of release.
Missouri is taking a different approach. In 1983, it closed its Boonville Training School that had held up to 650 boys at a time. Now the state’s Department of Youth Services uses smaller sites across the state—abandoned school buildings, large residential homes, a convent—to house delinquent teens. The largest of the new units houses only three dozen teens.
The state staffs its facilities primarily with college-educated “youth specialists,” rather than traditional corrections officers. Today, the available data suggest that Missouri achieves far more success than most other states in reducing the future criminality of youthful offenders. Missouri also is above average in protecting the safety of confined youth, preventing abuses, and fostering learning.
Experts praise the small-facilities approach. Ned Loughran of the Council of Juvenile Correctional Administrators says that “small is extremely important.”