The Missouri Miracle

Seal of Missouri.

Seal of Missouri. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Robert Winters, of Kaplan University‘s School of Criminal Justice, has a great piece of work posted on in which he gives voice to the idea that it is more expensive to do nothing about our juvenile justice system. As you might imagine we were terrifically pleased to see one of our main arguments being used.

More effective, less expensive: an admittedly counterintuitive mantra until you actually examine the numbers. Then it suddenly becomes clear that this is exactly the case. Prof. Winters explains how things have turned around since the 1980s, when recidivism was high and rehabilitation rare. (Back to the Future –

What replaced that broken system came to be known as the “Missouri Miracle.” Traditional facilities were replaced by 32 small housing units (with populations typically ranging from 10 to 30) that are not only located across the state so that juvenile offenders can remain close to home, but also bear little resemblance to a prison. They are more like a group home, staffed by highly-trained personnel who use an approach that emphasizes therapy and rehabilitation over punishment. The staff-offender ratio is very low as well.

Though it might seem that a less stringent security environment—these facilities do not even have fences—would be an invitation to escape, that has not been the case in Missouri. On average there are less than 50 per year. The state does operate eight isolation rooms for juvenile offenders and still has a traditional prison for offenders under age 17, but the isolation rooms have been only rarely used and the prison has contained less than five inmates for most years of the new program.

What qualified the “Missouri Miracle” as a miracle? Recidivism into the juvenile program is now under 8%. The rate of adult conviction of former juvenile offenders now hovers between 7% and 8% for a five-year period after concluding the program. New York’s juvenile system, by contrast, has an 89% male recidivism rate. In Illinois it was 50% in 2006-09, up from 33% in 1996-99. Roughly half of Missouri offenders return to school successfully, and another third earn high school diplomas or a GED while in the program. Compared to Missouri’s 91% education rate, the national average is 46%.

It might be reasonable to assume that such commendable results come at a high price, but in fact the opposite is true. New York’s cost is $210,000 per juvenile for a nearly 90% failure rate. The national average is around $100,000. The Missouri Miracle, on the other hands, costs about $50,000 per child annually.

This is no big secret. All you have to do is look at the numbers. In this age of rhetoric, seeing actual facts used to to state the case is a joy to behold. Even better is the fact that Winters points to several other similar programs that have been kicking off around the country.

The District of Columbia started to use the Missouri Model in 2009 with mixed results. The first facility based on it cut its recidivism rate in half. Unfortunately there was also a tragic incident where a middle-school principal was killed by several juveniles who were serving under the new program.

Here in my home state of Louisiana, which has always deserved a horrible reputation when it comes to corrections, we saw the Bridge City facility open in 2007. Again based on the Missouri Model, it serves male youth offenders aged 10 to 20 serving sentences ranging from six to 24 months. Since opening it has achieved a recidivism rates of 10 %.

Other jurisdictions are finally starting to experiment with the Missouri Model, including New Mexico and San Jose, California. We have faith that the model’s success can be replicated in widely divergent areas of the country, and each time it shows gains in another community the evidence becomes more impossible to ignore. This is the sane way to both fix the system and reduce the budget needed to do so at the same time.

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