Last updated: April 15, 2019
Topic: FamilyChildren
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The Uprising of the Missouri Juvenile Justice System

Missouri, ironically endeared as the “Show Me State”, has undoubtedly shown the nation their meaning of success through it exemplary juvenile justice system.  From reform to rehabilitation, Missouri has strived to focus its attention on the needs of the young who have crossed its judicial threshold.  This in turn has paved the way for such legislative achievements as the “Juvenile Justice Reform Act”, and “Juvenile Court Improvement Act”.  Throughout the following we will take an in-depth look at the Missouri Juvenile Justice System and its transcendence from reformation to rehabilitation as well as discuss its resulting recidivism rate.

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In the 19th century, Missouri’s Juvenile Justice System was in essence cruel and unusual.  According to the Missouri Juvenile Justice Association (MJJA), troubled youths who found themselves on the wrong side of the law were often cast aside and sentenced to the confines of adult prisons, asylums and poor houses.  Legislators showed little disregard toward the physical and mental well being of the young incarcerates.  It is note worthy to mention, “The wrong side of the law”, meant not only children who had committed criminal acts, but also included abused, neglected and homeless children.    Gradually the state began to focus its attention on the domestic and educational needs of its youth.  As a result Reform Schools were constructed.  (MJJA, 2003)

Juvenile Reformation in the latter part of the 19th Century took on a dark and dungeon like tone.  With the appearance of “training schools” in Boonesville, Chillicothe and Tipton, the juvenile justice system in Missouri took their first steps toward the structuring of their condemned youth.  However, incarceration in these types of facilities would prove to be lacking.  Boasting 158 acres and allowing the housing of 650 teens at any given time, the reformatory in Boonesville now stands desolate.  Its barbed wire and foreboding residence halls remain a constant reminder of deplorable conditions and tiny cell like units.  These congregate care centers could hardly be seen as an asset to the domestic entitlements of children. (Mendel, n.d.)

Physical abuse was prevalent within the reformatory walls.  While a small number of teachers and counselors found their way in to the “training schools”, it was the correctional guards who comprised the majority of staff members, whereupon little training was offered in the areas of child development or counseling.  Success was equated with the compliance of in-house rules as opposed to rehabilitation.  In furtherance of the act of compliance, guards were instructed to use brute force when reprimanding detainees.  Many of those who had once held authoritative positions as correctional guards have since been deemed “sadists”.  (Mendel, n.d.)

Additionally, strict social sanctions, aided in the deterring of rehabilitative goals set by the State of Missouri.  Youth offenders with the custody of the reformatories were primarily segregated from family and society as a whole.  Concepts like those of mental health treatment and post sentence reinforcement were almost non-existent during this time.

As the years advanced the militant style factions of the reformatories began to weigh heavily on the minds of legislators and educators.  Death had also made its way in these “rehabilitative” schools.  Eventually the combination of abuse, dank solitary confinement rooms and unethical practices eventually led to the downfall of the congregate system. At the very least Missouri’s Juvenile Justice System had failed society and the children it sought to cure.  (Mendel, n.d.)

It was not until the 1970’s that rehabilitation, as it is defined, began to emerge.  Group living and therapy sessions were soon at the forefront of the Missouri Juvenile Justice System.  By the 1990’s the availability of mental health services, community based programs and governmental funding laid the foundation for Missouri’s outstanding achievements in juvenile justice.   Conceivably it is the best juvenile justice system in the nation as it pertains to the rehabilitation of young offenders. (MJJA, 2003)

During the reconstruction phase, the once over-sized “training schools” were replaced by smaller group home like structures housing at the most 36 adolescent offenders.  The securing of additional properties statewide allowed resident teens to remain within close proximity to their respective families.  Subsequently, college educated “Youth Specialists” absorbed the responsibilities of past correctional guards.  While these smaller housing units were not without their complexities, the employment of case management systems, valuable staff training and family oriented programs inspired beneficial growth.  (Mendel, n.d.)

In present day rehabilitation processes of Missouri, psychological therapy plays a crucial role.  Residents under the care of the juvenile justice system are offered an array of mental health services by means of Mental Health Counselors and outside psychiatric professionals.  The disbursement of medications use to combat mental illness are also favored.  In addition to professional staff members, youth are taught to turn to one another for reassurance and understanding.  Typically, the youth are also required to perform “check-in” with staff and other residents several times per day.  Additionally, residents are encouraged to discuss their day-to-day emotional standing and voice complaints or concerns.  Each afternoon, group therapy sessions are held where the teens are asked to recount traumatic experiences and crimes committed.  The issuance of such is statements are believed to promote trust, friendship and communication.  (Mendel, n.d.)

Psychological practices and therapeutic sessions, however, do not end with release from the residency.  Instead, “Aftercare” becomes a vital component.  Upon entry into the Division of Youth Services (DYS), all children are assigned a “Service Coordinator” who will oversee their case well after release, usually 3-6 months.  11 non-residential facilities are also available to released and lesser offenders.  Released teens are often designated a “Tracker”; this is generally another youth from the offender’s home community or a college student.  For the freed offender, “Trackers” offer guidance, communication and help in obtaining a job.  (Mendel, n.d.)

However fruitful the group home environment may have been, the Missouri Court System left much to be desired.  Yet, the concept of restorative justice is one of hope where accountability, rehabilitation and community safety reigned supreme.  This type of judicial practice allows offenders to accept their obligations toward both victim and community while developing enhanced capabilities upon release.  Thus, creating greater protection for society.  Missouri Statute 219.011 dictates that the Division of Youth Services shall be responsible for “reception, classification, care, activities, education and rehabilitation” of all children committed to their care.  In regards to child welfare, Statute 210.001 delegates that children and family needs should be served in the “lease restricting setting” with inclusion of appropriate social services, preventative measures and intervention while encouraging self-sufficiency and independence in hopes of lessening out-of-home placements.  (MJJA, 2003)

Restorative justice while great in theory was not necessarily followed at the time.  In 1996 alone, 302 Missouri youths were ordered to stand trial as adults.  Lack of resources and lengthy waiting lists left little in the way of alternatives.  However, contrary to adult punishments of the 19th Century, youth offenders certified to be tried as adults were often dismissed due to repeated failures in the engagement of warrants and potential witness testimony.  Though the number of juveniles facing adult court proceedings has sharply decreased, it is clear in such cases as those in 1996, both child and society were again disregarded.    (Franck, 2003)

Missouri’s ideals of a true rehabilitative source of justice incited the court system to take a more substantial approach.  As the 1990’s progressed, the need for a Unified Family Court became of great importance.  The goal of the Unified Family Court was to rid the system of fragmented, inconsistent and often ineffective Juvenile Justice Administration and Social Services.  With the inception of this court system, quality took center stage, as efficiency and compassion sought to reconcile previous malignancies.  As such families could obtain much needed services while acquiring a more personalized mediation from justice administrators. (Kansas Justice Commission, 1999)

Perceived benefits of the Unified Court System in Missouri would allow a more centralized form of justice.  Jurisdiction was recommended to include all aspects of domestic affairs pertaining to children and their families, such as child support, custody domestic violence and juvenile offenses.  Traditional courts were many times criticized for their inadequate services in “Family Crisis Cases”.  Domestic overloads in district courts often led to frustrating delays, conflicting court orders and were less likely to protect the families, whereas, Unified Family Courts granted one judge and staff member per family.  Additionally, “Automatic Case Tracking” was beneficial in examining previous family court cases and the production of statistical reports.  (Kansas Justice Commission, 1999)

It is said, “Systems do not change people, people change people” Mediation Services offered to offenders do not require a presiding to oversee the case and serve to avoid the possibility of fostering feelings of hostility and helplessness.  As such, mediation in the Unified System brought an alternative resolution to families in crisis.  It could be said that mediation offers a sense of empowerment to juveniles and families.  Whereupon, the realization of ones own future being solely controlled by one-self can be an effective tool. (Kansas Justice Commission, 1999)

Still, it is not enough to say that officials of Missouri’s Juvenile Court System are skilled in the applicability of law, they must also be educated in the demand of juvenile justice, which includes emotional, physical and psychological needs of the children and families under their supervision.  The sheer emotionality and volatile circumstances surrounding Family Law can have drastic effects.  As such, all Family Law appointed officers must undergo continual intensive training.  That is to say, the role of Juvenile Court appointee’s is one of many facets.  Investigation, intake, diversion, secure detention, prosecution, intervention, sanction and services compile the list of responsibilities brought upon staff members.  It should also be kept in mind that these staff members will have contact with both offender and family.  (Missouri Justice Association, 2003)

In 2004, Missouri’s Office of State Courts Administrator revised the standards set for the administration of juvenile justice.  In an attempt to enhance performance of its Juvenile Court System, the State of Missouri felt it necessary to implement unified standards to further accountability and responsiveness to the public.  The core values of these judicial standards were meant to uphold equality, integrity, fairness and justice while offering the benefits of comprehension and assessment.  (OSCA, 2004, p. 2)

To improve access to Juvenile Justice Services, the following areas would first have to be addressed; availability, equitable access to services, courtesy, respect and sensitivity.  In order to achieve this goal it was recommended that structured interviews and systematic observation processes be adopted.  It was also recommended that surveys, focus groups and review of prior complaints be integrated.  Results were expected to allow for avenues of 24 hour Court Officer contact, handicap accessible services and respect for all involved regardless of culture, ethnicity and lifestyle differences.  (OSCA, 2004, pp. 6-7)

The ideology of independence and integrity were vital within the revised standards.  These standards focused on both decisions and actions taken by court appointed officers.  Outside influences such as separate government entities was strongly discouraged.  The standards as set forth deemed that all correspondence should be clearly stated, relevancy be determined regarding available services, increased accountability for the monitoring of cases and enforcement of judgments rendered as well as consistency.  (OSCA, 2004, p. 8)

One of the most critical aspects of the Missouri Juvenile Court Standards is case processing.  Included in this category are Intake and Referral in conjunction with Informal and Formal Case Processing.  From the earliest stages of juvenile court intake, officers are expected to be clear and concise.  Proper action should be taken immediately upon determination of the child’s well being.  Verbal reports must be chronicled to alleviate confusion and be stamped with the date of receipt.  Once the report is finalized, the officer should then evaluate all alleged information in order to make and accurate assessment.  Officers with the aid of legal, when necessary, must decide if the definition of the law has been satisfied or if further investigation is warranted.  If the officer believes the evidence lacks credibility or is insufficient as it pertains to the crime, he/she may dismiss or reject the referral.  If the referral remains active, the officer has 30 days from the date of receipt to make the Intake Disposition.  All parties involved shall then be notified via Informal Adjustments, Summonses, Petitions and Pleadings.  Furthermore, it is imperative that officers refrain from making biased judgments influenced by prior referrals or pre-existing conflict with the Child Welfare Agency.  (OSCA, 2004, pp. 12-13)

With the decision to informally process a substantiated juvenile case, a risk and needs assessment will begin and classification will be determined. Upon completion of assessment, an Informal Adjustment Hearing will be scheduled.  At this point, juvenile officers must take into account the best interests of child and family when deciding upon disposition and services.  Within 5 business days, all dispositions, assessment results, services utilized and sanctions are detailed in writing and submitted to the OSCA for review. Formal Case Processing begins with the decision to request protective custody or detainment and filing of petitions.  Assessments are so ordered and parties are given ample notice as to the details of the impending case.  As with the Informal Processing, officers have 5 days to report their findings and disposition to the OSCA. (OSCA, 2004, pp. 13)

Dispositions taken are primarily based on assessment results and the need for public safety, whereupon, the severity of the offense, will then be determined by the Missouri Risk Scale.  Dispositions included are; 1) Informal Adjustment in with supervision.  Although supervision may not be deemed necessary, offenders are required to attend one face-to-face meeting per month; 2) Formal Supervision consists of moderate to high-level supervision with two face-to-face meetings per month.  Minimum levels of supervision are also available; 3) Treatment Contacts which fosters supervision working with treatment providers (OSCA, 2004, 15-16)

Case monitoring plays an important role in the Juvenile Court System where progress reports and solid documentation of results seek to ensure compliance in all areas.  In this sense, risk levels can bed adjusted, conditions of supervision adhered to, review of services received and additional referrals.  In cases of child abuse and neglect, case monitoring should also include all Disposition Review Hearings, Permanency Hearings, and all hearing regarding the termination of parental rights while examining all written reports received from Child Services, Medical Professional and Law Enforcement Officials.  (OSCA, 2004, p. 16)

As each case is closed, supervision and adjustments are terminated.  Exit interviews are performed with offender and family to conclude discharge and review services.  Comments and/or recommendations may also be given at this time.  System performance is then evaluated by means of Recidivism rates, reports of child mistreatment, consistency, the utilization of available services and efficiency of case flow from beginning to end.  (OSCA, 2004, p. 17)

Victims, on the other hand are often left feeling less valued.  The revised standards determined victims should and must be recognized within the justice system.  As such the same care and respect offered to offenders should equally be afforded to victims.  Victim participation is wholly encouraged as well as the employment of focus groups, victim advocates and structured interviews.  Most often victims are family members of the young offender.  Other standards accounted for in the state’s revision are record keeping and detention services. (OSCA, 2004, pp. 10-11, 19)

Although not addressed in the Juvenile Court Standards, Disproportionate Minority Contact (DMC) is prevalent in the State of Missouri as it is in a number of other states.  DMC occurs when minority contact within the justice system is higher or lower than that of Caucasians.  Since the 1980’s the study of DMC has sparked initiatives to deliver fair treatment to minority offenders.  By examining data and analyzing contact rates, Educational and Judicial authorities hope to develop theories of why DMC exists and how to reduce its effect.  It is believed the answers lie within the social climate of individual communities.  (Kaylen, Dannerbeck, Muriuki, Bhandari & Heineken, 2006)

As a result of Missouri’s rehabilitative approach to Juvenile Justice, recidivism rates have drastically decreased.  This is due largely in part to the juvenile housing structure, therapeutic measures and availability of aftercare upon release.  When compared to other states, the Missouri’s recidivism rate is found to be exceptional.  For instance, in the State of Florida, adult incarceration of individuals previously released from the juvenile justice system within a 12-month period, rested at 29% from the year 2000-2001.  Missouri recorded only 9% of repeat offenders for the same time period.  Ironically, budgets such as the DYS have not increased.  In fact, while DYS is estimated to spend approximately $103 per child, states like Louisiana approximate their spending at $270 per child.  Yet Louisiana’s recidivism rate escalated to 45% of released offenders within 3 years of being released, while Missouri rate was registered at 30%.  Another key factor in lower re-entry rates is educational resources offered to delinquent youths.  Many of these children and teens find themselves in high-ranking percentiles for Reading and Math in spite of not attending regular classes before placement.  (Mendel, n.d.)

In summary, The Missouri Juvenile Justice System has risen to the needs of their youth by means of personalized care, quality service and a rehabilitative driving force.  While the dark corridors of historical reformatories lurk within the landscapes shadow, close-knit group home communities has brought a sense of home to communities statewide. It is no wonder justice has prevailed.







Reference List

Celebrating 100 Years of Juvenile Justice in Missouri 1903-2003. Missouri Juvenile Justice Association. 28 Nov 2006. <>

Franck, Matthew. Fewer Juveniles are Tired as Adults. 9 Nov 2003. Missouri Juvenile Justice Association. 30 Nov 2006.  <>

Kansas Citizens Justice Initiative. 4 May 1999.  Kansas Justice Commission. 28 Nov 2006.  <>

Kaylen, Maria, Dannerbeck, Anne, Muriuki, Andrew, Bhandari, Shreya and Heineken, Jennifer. A Look at Disproportionate Minority Contact in Missouri.  Volume16, No. 4. Nov 2006. Office of Social and Economic Data Analysis. 29 Nov 2006. <>

Revised Missouri Court Performance Standards for the Administration of Juvenile Justice. Sept 2004. Missouri Office of State Courts Administrator. 28 Nov 2006.  <>

Mendel, D. Small is Beautiful:  The Missouri Division of Youth Services.  29 Nov 2006.