Missouri's New Take on Juvenile Justice

A different approach yields surprising results in the juvenile justice system.

Sept. 8, 2009 — -- Recent reports about abuse of juvenile inmates have renewed calls for a national overhaul of a juvenile justice system that includes nearly 100,000 children.

In Missouri, a different method for juvenile detention has seen surprisingly successful results, trading in the orange uniforms and cell blocks for therapists and dorm rooms.

Chris, 14, was sentenced to the Waverly Youth Center, one of Missouri's 32 juvenile jails and a last chance stop for 44 boys already embarked on a life of crime.

"In my town, I was labeled 'the troublemaker,'" Chris said. "I was doing drugs … drinking every day. … I was also stealing cars."

Chris says the Waverly Youth Center is nothing like prison.

"Staff are here to help you and to push you to do right," he said. "Here, everybody cares for you."

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The juveniles here are encouraged to solve problems with words instead of force. If one person calls a "circle," everyone must stop to discuss the issue.

Only 10 percent of the kids in Missouri's juvenile jails end up in adult prison, according to Missouri Division of Youth Services. In other states, that number is as high as 40 percent.

Last month, the Justice Department said inmates in New York were routinely subjected to excessive force.

But in Missouri, without using confinement or prison tactics, children in the juvenile system are four times less likely to be assaulted by other inmates than in other juvenile detention programs, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Additionally, they are almost never assaulted by guards or staff members.

These children also get something else not often seen in prisons: hugs.

"Some of these kids come from an environment where they've never been hugged," said Kim Orear, a group leader at Waverly. "We will never replace the parent that never paid attention to them ... but what we do do is show them that they are worthy of hugs."

Missouri's Juvenile Justice System

The cost per child in Missouri is $50,000 a year, half the national average of other traditional juvenile prisons.

"Other programs put their money into fences and isolation, cells and security hardware," said Tim Decker, director of the Missouri Division of Youth Services. "We put our money into surrounding these young people with caring adults who help them learn the kinds of skills that they're going to need to be successful."

The staff makes sure the children have daily routines of school and chores.

"You go to school, come back, do your details," said Dylan, 16. "If you can do it in here, then you can do it out there."

Tye, 17, has been in and out of detention centers and foster homes since she was 2 years old. She has committed multiple felonies, and was 9 years old when she was arrested for the first time.

"At the age of 7, I first smoked pot.," Tye said. "After my father died, I was sneaking into my mother's prescription drugs ... when I was in fourth grade because we didn't have hardly any food in the house ... I would sell the pills. At the age of 10 ... that was the first time I ever shot meth, smoked meth and did cocaine."

For Tye, who was sentenced to the Rosa Parks Center in Fulton, Mo., this is her first stable environment.

"My past is all I have," Tye said. "Until I cannot hold onto the past anymore, is when I can start being happy."

Although the Missouri system may not appear to be "tough on crime," Decker argues it is.

"This approach is much tougher than young people spending their time sitting in a cell," Decker said. "This is far more rigorous, and for a young person to … complete this program takes a great deal of effort on their part."

Ultimately the staff members say the goal of the system is to give the children the tools they need to be successful.

"It's their choice whether … they want to make those changes and implement them on the outside," Orear said.