Public Policy Forum Blog

Missouri's Juvenile Justice Model Not a Novel Concept

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's two-part series on Wisconsin's troubled juvenile justice system that ran yesterday and today focused first on the crisis at Lincoln Hills, and the fact that it was "years in the making;" and then on a different model employed in the State of Missouri, which "could be a blueprint for Wisconsin."

We agree with both points. In fact, we first cited the Missouri model and asked whether it might represent "a cheaper, better approach to juvenile corrections" in a blog posted in March 2008; and we revisited the issue in a blog posted 18 months later, in which we cited increased state and national attention being given to the Missouri model and argued that it could represent the type of "new thinking (that) is needed to cut corrections costs and reduce recidivism among the juvenile population."

Admittedly, our arguments were not based on our ability to forecast the tragic and infuriating episodes of abuse that have been uncovered at the Lincoln Hills School for Boys, the state's correctional institution for juvenile males. Instead, our angle was mostly a financial one: with the state's juvenile corrections population plummeting, we suggested that adoption of a Missouri-type model – which emphasizes small, community-based residential facilities as an alternative to large institutions – might allow the state to save money by closing one or more of its three large juvenile correctional facilities, while also producing better outcomes.  

Indeed, the state did shut down the Ethan Allen School in Waukesha County and Southern Oaks Girls School in Racine County in 2011, which according to the Journal Sentinel is saving $25 million per year. In doing so, however, it simply consolidated the populations of those institutions at Lincoln Hills and the adjacent Copper Lake School for Girls in northern Wisconsin, while failing to consider an alternative programmatic model or to open alternative facilities closer to Milwaukee.

Seven years later, it's nice to see state and Milwaukee County officials discussing a new approach, as detailed in the Journal Sentinel series. Yet, it's also disconcerting to look back on the consideration that was given to that approach in 2009, and to reflect on how things might have been different had that consideration been translated into action. While we still cannot say for sure that the Missouri model is the correct model, the need for enhanced state-county cooperation and a greater array of sentencing options that have shown success in curbing recidivism would appear to be in order.

Rob Henken