Youth Justice


At younger and younger ages, children and teens who go through the juvenile justice systems of many states are condemned to long terms at large youth detention centers and adult prisons only to languish in cells surrounded by thick walls and razor wire.  Too often they are locked down for long periods of the day with no real opportunities for rehabilitation, treatment or education. Many youth become more hardened criminals while incarcerated, and at the end of their sentences they are released into communities that don’t have adequate resources to reintegrate them.  It is a disgrace that what I’ve just described is largely what passes for juvenile justice in many states and municipalities throughout our nation.  But there is a better way.

Mark D. Steward, Founder and Director of the Missouri Youth Services Institute, and his colleague, Pili Robinson, are lights on the horizon of urgently needed nationwide juvenile justice system reform.  Mark previously served as Director of the Missouri Division of Youth Services for over 17 years until retiring in July 2005 after 35 years of service in this field.

His approach to youth development is a sharp departure from most conventional methods of incarceration, instead using a rehabilitative and therapeutic youth program.  Missouri’s juvenile recidivism rate, with only eight percent of those incarcerated coming back into juvenile custody and 8 percent going into Missouri’s prisons, has been one of the best success stories in the country.

As a result of the state applying new thinking to its approach to juvenile justice and overhauling its entire system, Missouri has been copied by other jurisdictions for its success in rerouting troubled, adjudicated children and teens onto successful life paths. First it eliminated its huge, rural detention facility that warehoused 2,500 young people. In its place, Missouri established 33 residential facilities and 11 day treatment centers in five regions. These aren’t just smaller prisons; they are designed to provide a dormitory atmosphere for groups of no more than 12 children and teens. Under this system, no one is more than two hours away from their home and community services.

The key to Missouri’s success is its focus on the development of each individual child or youth in a positive environment. We were all impressed when Pili Robinson described their methods at the Children’s Defense Fund’s National Cradle to Prison Pipeline® Summit in September 2007. When you walk into a Missouri juvenile detention facility, there are no cuffs or shackles, no cells, no bars; there are no isolation rooms and no correction officers.  What you find instead are youth counselors and team leaders in a dorm-like environment with bunk beds, pillows, couches and carpets, and young people wearing their own clothes, explained Robinson. “We allow kids to be themselves and take them back to being kids,” he said, noting that many children are forced by their harsh environments to grow up too fast.

Education and job training are essential components of the program. There are two facilities located on the campuses of women’s colleges for adjudicated girls who go to a residential program where they receive full-time mentoring. While attending high school, they slowly transition directly into college life. Instead of being locked down and locked in, the youth throughout the system participate in community service projects at nursing homes and food banks and take field trips to places like Washington, D.C., and Boston. They sponsor Career Days, Multi-Culture Festivals and their own Olympics.

Much of the rehabilitation involves working through youth peer groups and does away with the mode of adults preaching down to them. The youth are taught leadership skills and how to facilitate group sessions. Staff members are trained to facilitate teams of 12 and are prepared to meet the needs of each youth, making referrals to family therapy and substance abuse counseling generally unnecessary.

The Missouri Division of Youth Services also has created a seamless case management system so that once a youth is adjudicated, one case worker follows him and his family throughout his entire stay in the system facilitating the eventual reentry of the youth into his community. Significantly, this system comes with a considerable cost savings. The annual cost for detaining a youth in Missouri is less than half of what other states pay.

We should stop spending a fortune on large traditional, non-therapeutic, correctional facilities and then releasing youth back into our communities with little done to address their rehabilitation, treatment and education needs. It makes infinitely more sense to support juvenile rehabilitation programs like the Missouri Division of Youth Services, which have high rates of success turning troubled children into productive citizens. We hope that more states and municipalities get that message soon.

Learn more about CDF’s Cradle to Prison Pipeline Campaign at: