Missouri youth services: a model for all to follow

Wednesday, January 4, 2006

By Marian Wright Edelman

The criminalization of our children has reached a dangerous increase. Researchers and practitioners prefer mentoring, tutoring, gang prevention, substance abuse programs, dropout reduction, community service, nurse visitation initiatives, and quality after-school and summer programs, as well as jobs. These are among the right preventive investments in our nation's youth. Since 2001, however, the Bush administration has proposed a reduction in funds of nearly 66 percent for federal youth prevention and intervention programs. Actual funding has dropped more than 40 percent, with additional cuts being considered for next year -- a reckless budgetary decimation of the programs and services that help keep children out of trouble and on the right path. If we know what works, how can we allow the government to ignore the immediate needs of children, particularly poor and minority children? Eliminating youth services condemns us to much more pain in the long run in terms of our criminal justice system, incarceration and other public costs. Conservative estimates place the total savings of diverting one child from a lifetime of crime at about $1.5 million. Most importantly, that child has the opportunity to succeed in life -- an opportunity that is each person's God-given right. There are models for how we can do this for more of our nation's children. The state of Missouri's approach is one.

Experts praise Missouri's Division of Youth Services as a "guiding light." They credit Mark Steward, the division's recently retired director, with building and sustaining the country's finest state juvenile corrections system. Dubbed the "Missouri model" by reformers in other states, it emphasizes rehabilitating young offenders in homey, small-group settings that incorporate constant therapy and positive peer pressure under the direct guidance of well-trained counselors.

When a young person commits a crime, judges generally reserve commitment to a Division of Youth Services residential facility for only the toughest of cases -- about 1,300 each year. For most youths, "aftercare" consists of a prolonged relationship with a case manager. Many youths are also assigned a "tracker" -- often college students, or sometimes residents of the youth's home community -- who monitor their progress. Missouri also operates 11 nonresidential "day treatment" centers year-round during school hours, and these facilities offer a way station for teens after leaving a residential facility.

How do we know Missouri's approach is working? A long-term recidivism study showed that only 8 percent of youths released in 1999 were incarcerated in youth or adult corrections three years later. Another 19 percent were sentenced to adult probation. This means that nearly three-fourths of these youths avoided prison or probation for at least three years. Comparatively, Missouri's results are remarkable.

Besides the obvious future savings that accompany its low recidivism rates, the Missouri model is also substantially cheaper than many of its counterparts around the country. In 2004, Missouri's Division of Youth Services devoted nine of every $10 in its budget to treatment services. The state's annual cost per bed in a residential treatment facility ranged from $41,400 to $55,000, while Maryland spent $64,000 per bed in 2003, and California, $71,000. Even worse, far more young people in Maryland and California end up in prison as adults, proving that those states pay twice as much for inferior treatment.

So if successful models like Missouri's exist, why isn't the entire nation following them? We know what works to keep our children safe and out of trouble. But will we provide the support for all at-risk children? Our children deserve the chance to survive and thrive and to be protected from the prison pipeline that steals too many young dreams.

Marian Wright Edelman is president and founder of the Children's Defense Fund and its Action Council whose mission is to Leave No Child Behind and to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start, and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities.