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WHAT OTHERS SAY: Keeping young offenders out of jail pays dividends

Tuesday, September 17, 2013 | 4:34 p.m. CDT

One of the things that Missouri government does well is juvenile justice. Now many other states have realized what Missouri realized decades ago: Locking kids up in detention centers neither bodes well for their futures nor keeps the public any safer.

Authorities have found the more time troubled kids spend locked up, the more likely they are to come out worse than when they went in.

Data released this month by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention show the country’s juvenile commitment rate dropped 14 percent from 2010 to 2011.

Coinciding with that data, the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Public Safety Performance Project reported that the commitment rate for juveniles was down 48 percent from 1997 to 2011.

Adam Gelb, performance project director, noted that the prevailing philosophy in the ‘80s and ‘90s was that the best way to fight youth crime and violence was to lock up as many kids for as long as possible.

Science and research helped make the difference. In the past 10 to 15 years, research on brain development has shown that juveniles are different than adults and that there are more effective ways to handle them than commitment to long-term facilities.

It didn’t hurt that policymakers discovered that the more successful methods also were cheaper. They’re cheaper in the short term, but also in the long run. When a troubled kid is taken out of a volatile situation, gets help and develops better coping strategies, he or she is more likely to become a contributing member of society instead of an adult offender.

Missouri began using this approach about 30 years ago, when the state closed its “training schools,” a euphemism for juvenile prisons.

A 2010 report on Missouri’s approach by the Annie E. Casey Foundation suggested the training schools often were unsafe, unhealthy and perhaps unconstitutional. Missouri replaced them with smaller group homes, camps and facilities.

Other methods used in Missouri that are being adopted across the country include “maintaining safety through relationships and eyes-on supervision rather than isolation and correctional hardware, and providing intensive youth development offered by dedicated youth development specialists rather than correctional supervision by guards.”

The Casey Foundation said Missouri’s approach had produced “excellent results.”

“They produce far lower recidivism than other states, an impressive safety record, and positive youth outcomes — all at a modest budget far smaller than that of many states with less-enviable outcomes,” the report said.

The federal juvenile justice office reports that Missouri’s juvenile commitment rate in 2011 was 35th. That’s down from 14th in 1997, but only because the rest of the country is getting better.

Missouri’s focus now is cutting the number of youths committed for such “juvenile offenses” as underage drinking, truancy and curfew violations. These relatively minor problems result in about the same number of commitments as violent felonies such as robbery and assault.

Serious offenses will continue to merit commitment. But less serious offenses may be handled more effectively with counseling, education and alternative sentencing options.

Mr. Gelb said that technology now makes supervision of young offenders easier. States can use GPS monitoring and “sweat patches” that track drug and alcohol use, he said.

Not giving up on troubled kids has served our state well, and now is not the time to let that slip. Education is vital. Helping juveniles compete in an increasingly complex world is cheaper than locking them up when they fail.

These should be legislative priorities. Missouri has had very few successful social programs in recent decades. This is one to be proud of, and one to build on.

Copyright St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Reprinted with permission.


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