There is no shortage of testimonials from the JJ field when it comes to the confinement strategies used by the State of Missouri. Under Department of Social Services Director Gary Stangler and Mark Steward, who ran that department's Division of Youth Services (DYS) for 17 years, the system moved toward small, scattered secure facilities with programs that focused on treatment and education.
Now, the accolades have been tossed from that ivy-est of towers: Harvard University. The Missouri Division of Youth Services was one of six Innovations in American Government award winners, an honor that comes with $100,000 from Harvard Kennedy School's Ash Institute.
So...let the Missouri revolution begin?
It's not a program that works for every youth, especially those with serious mental health needs or severe educational limitations. And it is not a panacea for the parts of the system that work with the majority of juvenile offenders who do not need commitment.
But when it comes to working with confined juveniles, the state's results are, basically, indisputable. At no time over the past 10 years has the percentage of youth returning to state lockup within two years of discharge exceeded 9 percent; in 2002 it was 6 percent, last year it was 7 percent.
For a comparison that reflects how much other states struggle with this, consider New York, where Gov. David Paterson (D) is putting together a JJ task force to deal with reform, because the state estimates that 80 percent of youth released from its custody are returning to state custody shortly after release.
"As far as a statewide system, there is no question Missouri is head and shoulders above everyone," says Marc Schindler, general counsel for Washington, D.C.'s Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services. DYRS has used Missouri's program model for youth at Oak Hill Academy. To do so, it has worked closely with Missouri Youth Services Institute, the consulting group set up by Steward after he left DYS in 2005.
But D.C.'s DYRS is one of only four systems in the country working with Steward on the Missouri model; Louisiana, New Mexico and Santa Clara County, Calif., (more populous than many states) are the others.
Others are interested, but Steward is picky about who MYSI will work with for two reasons: He has limited resources (JEHT Foundation and Annie E. Casey Foundation are the big contributors to MYSI projects) and he doesn't want places touting Missouri approaches unless they actually mean to do it.
"He's turned places down," Schindler says. "Which is to his credit; Mark is not just going to work with anybody."
Steward says at least half the states in the country sent delegations to Missouri for visits during his tenure.
"A significant portion would come in, see [our system], and either say ‘That looks too hard to do', or were not committed to changing the work."
He doesn't blame them. "You are talking about totally redoing staff and management practices. You'll have to fight unions and some line staff."
Even with Steward's stringent acceptance rate, one of the four MYSI projects is in a precarious state. Louisiana moved toward a Missouri model before Hurricane Katrina, but progress stalled after the storm as many facilities lost a high number of staff.
"We kind of left," Steward says. "They lost staff here and there and everywhere, it was a shame."
A move toward Missouri has also likely slowed thanks to the departure of Gov. Kathleen Blanco (D), who was aggressive in recruiting MYSI and Casey's Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative, and talked MacArthur Foundation into making Louisiana one of the four Models for Change states. With Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) came new juvenile justice leadership in Richard Thompson, who came in with no support from the youth work community and resigned five months later, allegedly to spend time with a newborn grandchild in Puerto Rico. Jindal's administration says it still intends to move toward the Missouri model, and has contacted Steward asking MYSI to return as consultants.
"I think one of the most critical elements [in replicating Missouri], if not the most, is consistent leadership," says Schindler, whose boss, Vinny Schiraldi, has led D.C.'s DYRS for three and a half years (a lifetime in D.C. juvenile justice).
"In the time Missouri had one director [Steward], D.C. had about 20," Schindler says. "I don't think there's any way we are talking about Missouri having accomplished this" if it had incurred the standard turnover in leadership.
It will be interesting to see how much the Harvard recognition and others like it will help sell other states on emulating Missouri's approach. In Connecticut, for example, Gov. Jodi Rell (R) fully supports a Missouri model system. But the legislature - many of whom remember being pushed by Rell's former boss, John Rowland, into approving bonds for the extremely punitive Connecticut Juvenile Training School - have refused to approve money to build the three facilities necessary for reform.
It's easy to understand why legislators would be gun shy of an expensive makeover after that debacle. Will the Harvard stamp of approval help sell Missouri in Connecticut, or elsewhere?
Missouri DYS, now overseen by Tim Decker, now has $100,000 more to help make it happen. DYS spokesman Brian Hauswirth says the money from Harvard will be used to help other states import the system. That could mean staffing a coordinator, flying state officials in for visits, or even just giving MYSI the money.
"We have a very good relationship with Mark's group," says Hauswirth. "We are in the planning process now."
Steward, by nature a jovial and positive person, isn't sure the model will proliferate without a bigger culture change in juvenile justice philosophy.
"The culture in a lot of places is still very correctional," he says. " They just don't want to treat these kids that well."
Support from the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention would go a long way in changing that view, Steward believes. "I 'd love to see them take more of a leadership role...and promote excellent programs."
OJJDP has never reached out to MYSI, he says.