As states grapple with rising prison costs and reports of abuse in juvenile lock-ups, many are trying to recreate a successful Missouri program that boasts one of the lowest repeat-offender rates in the U.S., reports Stateline.org. The state in the early 1980s abandoned an embattled youth corrections facility, which housed 650 juveniles, in favor of smaller regional treatment centers that provide education, job training, and 24-hour counseling. Missouri's approach, pioneered in Massachusetts, aimed at creating a safe, non-punitive environment, where counselors help troubled kids turn around their lives. In the last three years, officials from at least 30 states have visited the Missouri facilities; several are taking steps to adopt the system. Missouri's program is not necessarily cheaper than traditional lock-up sytems, but with fewer than 8 percent of its graduates returning, the state saves money in the long run.
Looking to repeat those results are Louisiana, New Mexico, Santa Clara County, Ca., and the District of Columbia, which have been working with the Missouri Youth Services Institute of Mark Steward. Steward, who led Missouri's transformation for 18 years, retired three years ago only to be inundated by calls from states looking for help. Alabama, Arkansas, Illinois, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, and Texas have talked with Steward, but his small staff can work with only a few states at a time. A Missouri-style transformation won't happen overnight. Under Steward, the state made slow, steady progress for more than two decades, resulting in a system of 32 residential treatment centers. Juvenile crime experts urge states to invest in this type of counseling and rehabilitation, instead of more punishment, as a way to stem adult crime and incarcerations. But for the last 20 years, most states have gone in the opposite direction, said Liz Ryan of the Campaign for Youth Justice.