Public Policy Forum Blog

Revisiting the Missouri approach to juvenile corrections

In a blog post published in March 2008, we cited an innovative juvenile corrections model used by the state of Missouri and asked whether that might represent a cheaper, better approach for Wisconsin.

Eighteen months later, the Missouri model is attracting increased national attention. ABC News recently ran a feature on the model, which utilizes small community-based residential facilities featuring intensive treatment as an alternative to large correctional institutions. This approach, according to the report, "has chalked up results that have corrections experts across the country taking notice."

Policymakers in Wisconsin also are taking notice. In April 2008, the Legislature's Joint Legislative Council established a Special Committee on High-Risk Juvenile Offenders to examine best practices to reduce recidivism among high-risk offenders. In April of this year, the committee produced a report outlining its proceedings and describing several bills recommended as a result of its deliberations.

The committee took a look at the Missouri model and considered draft legislation to pilot two or three Missouri-like facilities. The legislation did not make it into the committee's final recommendations, however, perhaps in part because of a memorandum prepared by the Department of Corrections showing that the Missouri daily rate for serving juveniles at its residential facilities is quite similar to the daily rate in Wisconsin juvenile corrections institutions if all related costs are considered.

Notwithstanding that finding, there may be a range of reasons to consider a more diverse service delivery model for juvenile corrections in Wisconsin. One is the potential to re-examine whether the state's institutional capacity could be reduced given the significant drop in the number of youth being sentenced to those institutions from Milwaukee County. The county averaged well in excess of 350 commitments per year in the late 1990s before seeing a precipitous drop to below 200 by 2004. After increasing in 2006-07, the commitment number is now trending downward again. This trend suggests there may be no better time to re-examine the closure of one of the state's three institutions in light of its fiscal challenges.

If the state were to consider such a move, it may need to be accompanied by additional community-based options. One such option could be a partnership with Milwaukee County to open a local residential facility based on the Missouri model. County officials have long complained about the cost of sending delinquent youth to the state facilities and may be willing to try a local alternative. Also, in light of the county's successful track record in operating alternatives programming (such as the Firearm Supervision, Wraparound Milwaukee and Focus programs), Milwaukee County could be the logical place to pilot another innovative approach.

The fiscal circumstances facing state government suggest that some new thinking is needed to cut corrections costs and reduce recidivism among the juvenile population. Whether the Missouri approach is the right one for Wisconsin requires further deliberation, but such deliberation again may be warranted in light of the successful outcomes associated with that approach.

Rob Henken