Few of the hundreds of youths referred to the Greene County Juvenile Office each year for possible criminal activity end up behind bars.

Chief Juvenile Officer Bill Prince said detention is deliberately reserved for the worst offenders, but he believes more can be done to keep children and youths in trouble for minor offenses out of the center completely.

He said too many of the 1,500 or so reports of delinquent behavior forwarded to his office each year end up generating juvenile cases against youths.

Prince, an attorney, estimates between 30 and 40 percent of those referrals ought to — and soon will be — handled through diversionary programs.

“We’d like to get to a point if a family comes to us in crisis — the first-time stealing or property damage, fairly minor stuff — that we’re not going to immediately open a case file on them in the system, where they stay,” said Prince, who has worked for the office since 1998. “If you open up a file on a kid, that case number and referral is there for as long as they are a kid.”

A series of moves involving county offices this fall, designed to make way for a possible jail expansion, will allow the juvenile justice center to relocate its Greene County Youth Academy, a day treatment center for youths on formal probation, to an adjacent building in the 900 block of North Robberson Avenue.

That building, the current headquarters for the Greene County Commission, will also provide space for a new juvenile community resource center.

Prince said youths enrolled in diversionary programs will go there to access in-house resources by the juvenile office, such as anger management and substance abuse assistance, and to seek referrals to community partners.

“We can provide those services in a sort of one-stop shop without them ever entering this building,” Prince said of the Juvenile Justice Center at 1111 N. Robberson Ave. “The ultimate goal is to keep them out of this building in the short term, and long term to keep them out of the criminal justice and out of jail.”

Marcia Hazelhorst, executive director of the Missouri Juvenile Justice Association, said national research shows students who go through the juvenile court system are more likely to get in trouble again.

“Once a child gets in the system, they have the potential of getting deeper and deeper into the system,” she said.

Hazelhorst said juvenile jurisdictions across Missouri have increasingly favored offering diversion programs, pointing to research that suggests it reduces recidivism.

She said by definition, diversion programs divert youths away from formal involvement with the juvenile court system. By voluntarily participating in other options, a youth can often avoid going before a judge.

“The data shows the majority of youth referred to the juvenile justice system, they are handled informally,” she said. “Diversion is used quite a bit.”

Prince said diversion programs will not be available to youths with serious or repeated offenses. It can serve as a second chance.

He said it’s also a way to address underlying issues, such as family trauma or substance abuse, that may have contributed to making a bad decision.

“One of the beauties of the juvenile system is we try to individualize treatment for kids so that a kid who commits shoplifting at (the mall) isn’t treated the same way as someone who commits a homicide,” he said.

He said the juvenile office in Greene County already offers group sessions, counseling and the Homework Assistance Program, in which retired teachers volunteer to help youths catch up on assignments.

Prince said the office averages 1,200 to 1,500 reports of delinquent or criminal activity by youths each year. He said there were 475 referrals in the first six months of this year, but reports pick up during the school year.

The referrals typically come from the Springfield Police Department, Greene County Sheriff’s Office, Springfield Public Schools and other, smaller districts in the county. The majority of the referrals are for physical and sexual assaults, property-related offenses and drug activity.

“It’s pretty consistent in terms of the kinds of things we’re seeing,” he said. “But we are seeing more complicated kids.

He said it is not unusual for youths to have experienced trauma or have significant drug, alcohol or mental health issues.

The office is using a program developed at Georgetown University to work with youths who have been the victim of abuse and neglect and are not acting out by committing criminal offenses.

“What science tells us is a lot of these behaviors we’re seeing in terms of their criminal behavior or criminal acting out are manifestations of the trauma they are exposed to,” he said. “If you don’t treat that underlying trauma, it is unlikely you are going to see long-term changes or improvement in their behavior.”