The Greene County Juvenile Justice Center is situated on North Robberson Avenue in Springfield. (Photo by Rance Burger)

Fewer kids are behind bars in Greene County than there were six years ago. There are also fewer kids entering the criminal justice system before they reach adulthood and fewer kids taking criminal records into their adult lives.

It’s not because Springfield and Greene County have gone soft on young people who misbehave, but because of a change in philosophy geared more toward providing help than dealing out punishment.

These strategies are now being used as models for other — much larger — counties.

Summary

The Greene County Juvenile Justice Center has been nationally recognized for using data to rethink its approach to handling the cases of juveniles accused of committing serious crimes. The number of cases where court intervention was required dropped from 135 in 2018 to 68 in 2021.

For Dr. Bill Prince, Greene County’s chief juvenile officer, the job is about helping children and teens who have experienced traumatic events in their lives, and about being able to connect kids with the right kind of intervention that will put them on a better path in life. Behind the scenes, Prince and his staff have been using some unorthodox strategies to reach juvenile delinquents, and they’re using data-driven analysis to determine which programs are working and which ways of thinking are no longer viable.

Prince has worked for the juvenile office since 1998, and became the chief juvenile officer in 2015. Part of his job involved law enforcement in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, when schools shifted to remote environments and stay-at-home orders kept Springfield’s youth away from many public places. While the pandemic played a part in altering the numbers, to only look at a decline in legal interventions with juveniles and attribute it to COVID-19 is to ignore a larger, longer trend.

Before the pandemic, in 2017, some major policy changes took shape.

“At the time, sort of in the works, was this statewide document that ultimately turned out to be called the Juvenile Officer Performance Standards, which were ultimately ordered into effect by the Supreme Court,” Prince said. “Essentially, what it was trying to do was standardize the practice across the state of how juvenile offices worked.”

‘We don’t want to criminalize what would just be regular youthful behavior’

The Greene County Juvenile Office is one of 46 offices in the state of Missouri that takes on cases for children who have encountered law enforcement agents. The staff handles cases in two major areas: children who are accused of committing serious crimes, and children who are caught in situations of child abuse and neglect.

Prince said that Greene County needed to write and stick to some well-articulated standards for working with kids, both for kids who were potential victims of abuse and neglect, and for kids who had broken the law.

“You just can’t treat them as little adults, and you kind of have to look at the whole family in dealing with these issues in trying to help these kids and their families get better,” Prince said.

Community safety is the top priority in the Greene County Juvenile Justice Center. There are two additional key priorities.

“We also want to make sure that victims who have been victimized, that they’re made whole as best as possible, but we also want to recognize that we’re dealing with a developing youth,” Prince said. “We all know the brain science tells us that a youth’s brain is not fully developed until 24 or 25 years of age, so the developing brain doesn’t always make the best decision.”

With that comes a different set of concerns that law enforcement groups would take with adults who break the law.

“We don’t want to criminalize what would just be regular youthful behavior,” Prince said. “We try to individualize and provide service to that youth and what that youth needs.”

The goal is to have “one and done” juvenile offenders who don’t get arrested for breaking the law again before they turn 17, and don’t run afoul of the law when they enter legal adulthood.

Taking stock of juvenile justice

In 2019, Greene County was selected to participate in two nonprofit-led programs called the Dennis M. Mondoro Probation Project and the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges Implementation Site Project. Backed with federal grants, these programs were organized by the education nonprofit Robert F. Kennedy Children’s Action Corps.

Both programs are efforts to transform juvenile justice systems and change the way court-ordered probation for juvenile lawbreakers is handled.

Pictured, from left, Greene County Chief Juvenile Officer Bill Prince, Director of Case Management Staci Denney, Director of Youth and Family Programming Julie Austin. (Photo by Greene County Juvenile Justice Center)

The Greene County Juvenile Office created a Quality Unit that uses statistics and data in an effort to keep troubled youth away from juvenile detention centers and more appearances in juvenile court. Prince said Greene County is the first Missouri county of its size to have such a robust data division. 

“It just dawned on me that we’re not measuring any of this. How do we know that a program works?” Prince said. “How do we know that what we’re doing is effective? It just struck me that we need to become much more data-driven in what we do.”

The hiring of a quality analyst marked the office’s transition beyond operating from gut feelings and moving to data-driven work.

The staff has been working with other larger juvenile justice offices in Seattle and Las Vegas. Additionally, Greene County’s consultants have used the department’s data reports as suggested templates and ideas for other juvenile offices to follow.

“I think that the biggest impact Bill has had on this office is creating structure where there really wasn’t any,” said Brittany O’Brien, Greene County director of legal services. “Prior to him being chief juvenile officer, there were no policy or manuals or written process, there was no grievance process. The office structure created division, we were focused more on law enforcement and less on helping families.”

Consultants from the Mondoro Project made 17 recommendations to Greene County. The juvenile office is planning to implement those changes within the next five years. This will help the department better align with the best practices in the field which are oriented around advances in understanding adolescent development.

“There is an ever-growing understanding within juvenile justice that relationship-based solutions and interventions are far more successful than punitive interventions,” said Julie Austin, Greene County director of youth and family programming. “Accountability remains an important part of the process, but providing resources and services that allow youth to form positive relationships and identity is also a key part of ensuring these kids become productive citizens down the road.”

Healing from trauma

Prince said it is important for anyone providing services to children who have entered the juvenile justice system be trauma-informed.

“That’s kind of a broad concept, but it basically recognizes the fact that a lot of the families we deal with come to us with past traumas in their lives, be it domestic violence, substance abuse, sexual abuse, neglect and things of that nature,” Prince said.

This year, Greene County added a full-time licensed clinician to its staff to provide direct individual and family therapy, along with therapeutic groups. The number of cases referred to the Greene County Juvenile Office hit a statewide record of 2,182 in 2010. The caseload has dropped. In 2016, the referral total was at 1,678 for the year. In 2019, the year of the selection for the Mondoro Probation Project and the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges Implementation Site Project, cases of juveniles being referred to the Greene County office for intervention dropped to 1,108.

Why care?

In 2021, Greene County was selected to participate in a technical assistance program to provide the best practices for both child abuse and neglect cases and commercial sexual exploitation cases. These efforts are meant to break child victims out of the cycle of abuse often persistent in such cases where children would otherwise have a low probability of recovery from the trauma they have been through.

Additionally, Greene County has examined its own performance standards with juvenile delinquents over the last five years in an effort to have fewer re-offenders and more “one and done” cases in the juvenile justice system.

In 2021, as Greene County began to emerge from the restrictions of the COVID-19 pandemic, juvenile cases climbed up slightly, to 1,457 for the year.

The number of cases where court intervention was required dropped from 135 in 2018 to 68 in 2021. Some of the drop is attributed to public health concerns tied directly to COVID-19.

“Our detention population went down, but of course, during the pandemic, you’re worried about being able to staff a detention center,” Prince said. “Juvenile court was considered a priority hearing, so we continued on through the pandemic having regular court.”

The long-term trend toward fewer juvenile incarcerations and criminal referrals is encouraging.

“What I can say is the trend that we were experiencing is not unique to Greene County, not really unique to Missourians and certainly not unique nationwide,” Prince said. “The trend has been — we have seen a general decline in juvenile formal referrals. We’re able to divert a lot of the kids that we get reports on without filing a formal case number on them, and being able to provide services, and that doesn’t get them deeper in the system.”

5 years of changes

In 2017, Greene County formally adopted the Missouri Juvenile Officer Performance Standards. The juvenile office aimed to help youth and families before young people reached a “legally sufficient” status resulting in a state juvenile criminal record.

“The Juvenile Office values youth resiliency, which aims to enhance youths’ protective factors and reduce risk factors that may cause re-offending behavior,” said Rachel Hogan, Greene County director of quality services. “Our office knows how important reunification is for families. We continue to research what’s best for kids and understand the difference between risk factors and safety factors.”

In 2018, the Community Based Services division programming moved to a larger space at 933 Robberson Avenue in Springfield to provide more services and therapeutic programs. The Greene County Domestic Relations Unit added a service for educating parents who have high amounts of conflict in their relationship. This program is called “CORE.”

In 2019, Greene County was awarded a $750,000 grant to enhance Family Treatment Court.

In 2020, the juvenile office hired a Family Treatment Court Project Coordinator and Peer Support Specialists to work with individuals with substance use disorders who are also involved in the child welfare system, as those individuals have lost custody of their children and are working toward reunification.

In July 2021, a law called “Raise the Age” took effect.

“Our juvenile court jurisdiction for kiddos who committed law violations went from 16 to 17,” Prince said.

Prince said there was not a major impact on case counts, but that Greene County began dealing with a few more 17-year-olds in its population of juvenile delinquents.

Shutting down the pipeline, or at least slowing it

In 2021, the Greene County Youth Detention Facility was placed on “diversion status” — during which they don’t incarcerate juveniles unless they have to — to focus on safe staffing requirements, training and adopting a trauma-informed approach for youth housed in detention. Greene County was also selected to participate in technical assistance program to provide best practices for both child abuse and neglect cases and commercial sexual exploitation cases.

Law enforcement agencies are the top case referrers to the Juvenile Justice Center, with the Springfield Police Department and the Greene County Sheriff’s Office ranking No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, Prince said. The No. 3 case referrer is Springfield Public Schools. After that, Prince said some kids are referred to the office by their parents or by family members.

Ultimately, the goal is to have as few children enter the justice system as possible.

“The school to prison pipeline was this idea that kids would start having discipline issues at school, and the next thing you knew, they would be referred to the juvenile justice system,” Prince said. “The studies are pretty clear that kiddos who have negative contacts with law enforcement that are referred to our office, there is a much greater likelihood that they’re going to become involved with the system.”

The turn of the century marked an influx in juvenile crime investigations and case referrals across the nation, but in Greene County, the people who work with troubled youths are trying to reduce legal interventions unless they are entirely necessary.

“In the 1990s and the early 2000s, following things like Columbine and that sort of thing, we just started seeing a lot of kids referred to this office from the schools that probably didn’t need to be referred here,” Prince said. “We have really been working with the schools, and they really are doing an excellent job, I think, of administratively handling a lot of the discipline issues in school.”

While the tendency might be to come down harshly on kids who act out or misbehave, Prince said there is a difference between youthful behavior and criminal behavior. Above all, he said that juvenile justice workers need to be able to adapt to deal with kids growing up in a different era than the kids of decades past.

“We recognize that there might be different and better ways to deal with the kiddos and the families that come to our attention, and we’re certainly willing to try,” Prince said. “It’s an evolving science sometimes, and we try to evolve and also lead that change sometimes.”

Rance Burger

Rance Burger covers local government for the Daily Citizen. His goal is to help people know more about what projects their government is involved in, and how their tax dollars are being spent. He is a graduate of the University of Missouri-Columbia with 15 years experience in journalism. Reach him at rburger@sgfcitizen.org or by calling 417-837-3669. Twitter: @RanceBurger More by Rance Burger