Juvenile Detention Reform in Missouri: Improving Lives, Improving Public Safety, and Saving Money

Article excerpt

Throughout the last decade, justice systems nationwide have begun to implement evidence-based treatment practices designed to determine the safest, most cost-effective ways to prevent a variety of offenders from reoffending. (1) When possible, courts using such practices often recommend services that can provide the opportunity for offenders to become productive citizens. While many states--including Missouri--have made extensive and effective use of evidence-based practices for adult offenders, such as drug and treatment courts, (2) fewer states have applied this same methodology to their assessment and treatment of juvenile offenders. However, if recent experiences in Missouri are any indication, it is clear that implementing evidence-based assessments and treatments of juvenile offenders will not only improve the lives of many youth at risk, but also improve the safety of the public overall--and all at a reduced cost to the taxpayer.

In Missouri, the executive branch--specifically the Division of Youth Services--is responsible for implementing evidence-based and treatment-based reforms with regard to juvenile offenders who have already been sentenced, and indeed many successes for their efforts rightly have been documented nationally and replicated in other states. (3) Less well-known are the efforts made with regard to the services provided by the Missouri judiciary to juvenile offenders pre-trial, which we intend to document in this article.

The Missouri judiciary's efforts in this area began in 2005 with funding from the Annie E. Casey Foundation for the pilot of the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative (JDAI). "The Annie E. Casey Foundation is a private charitable organization, dedicated to helping build better futures for disadvantaged children in the United States" through promoting public policy and human-services reform and through obtaining community support for working with these juveniles. (4)

JDAI is part of the foundation's national vision that all young persons who come into the juvenile justice system be given the support necessary to give them the chance to develop into healthy, productive adults. Historically, youth often have been detained unnecessarily at great expense, without adding to public safety--indeed such inappropriate detentions can have long-lasting negative consequences for both public safety and youth development. (5) JDAI promotes new program alternatives, delinquency hearing time standards, detention center self-assessments, community collaboration teams, and graduated sanctions to avoid unnecessary detention. (6) These changes have been successful in reducing reliance on secure confinement, improving public safety, reducing racial disparities and bias, saving taxpayers' dollars, and stimulating overall juvenile justice reforms.

The goal of JDAI is to reduce the time youth spend in detention. With funding from the Casey Foundation, technical assistance from the Missouri Juvenile Justice Association and the Missouri Office of State Courts Administrator, and the dedication of four pilot circuits located in the areas with the largest detention center populations--Greene, Jackson, and St. Louis counties, and the city of St. Louis--that vision has become a reality in Missouri. (7)

The impact of juvenile detention reform efforts by Greene County has been significant. Greene County is located in southwest Missouri and, as of the 2010 U.S. Census, was the fourth most populous county in Missouri. (8) Since 2005, there has been a thirty-five percent decrease in admissions, a thirty percent decrease in the length of stays, and a fifty percent decrease in the average daily population--all accomplished without there being an increase in juvenile delinquency within Greene County. (9) In fact, there has been a decrease in juvenile delinquency during this time, as evidenced by the decrease in filings of delinquency petitions.

Jackson County (Kansas City metropolitan area), the second most populous county in the state, has seen a sixty-three percent decrease in admissions to juvenile detention, a sixty-two percent decrease in the average daily population, and a fifty-six percent decrease in state commitments. …