A youth diagnosed with bipolar disorder and accused of breaking and entering approaches the court. The judge faces a choice: place him in underfunded mental health care in the community, where he may not receive the treatment he needs, or put him in the juvenile justice system, where he may be adversely affected by the criminality surrounding him. The New York Times recently profiled one such youth, Daniel, who has been in juvenile detention for two years because authorities felt he would receive better treatment there than in his home in Ohio. The Future of Children examined this topic in a recent volume on Juvenile Justice. The volume’s article on mental health found that youth would benefit from better evaluation of mental disorders and from more cooperation between mental health and correctional agencies.
Currently, many systems operate independently to help at-risk youth. Juvenile justice, mental health, education, and child protection institutions all treat youth separately, despite these issues’ interconnectedness. For instance, half to two-thirds of children in juvenile justice custody meet criteria for mental disorders – two-thirds of these for at least two disorders. Both institutional limitations and a lack of standards prevent court authorities from determining which youth would benefit most from community-based treatment, which might be harmed from exposure to prisons, and which pose safety risks to society that necessitate their isolation. This leaves the juvenile justice system to handle many youth who might respond better to mental health treatment outside of detention.
Mitigation of these issues begins with evaluating and sorting criminally detained youth using evidence-based methods that have recently become available. Those deemed not to be dangerous but who have long-term mental health needs, particularly those charged with lesser crimes, should be directed to proven community-based treatment programs. Not only have some of these programs been shown to help improve mental health, but they also reduce recidivism and anti-social behaviors. Youth with mental health disorders that are sentenced to detention should also receive better mental health treatment. Detention centers can partner with community groups to bring professionals into detention centers and offer specialized services to youth with severe difficulties.
Everyone benefits from collaboration between juvenile justice facilities and community mental health programs: courts can direct youth to appropriate services, the community is safer as recidivism declines, and troubled youth receive the treatment they need in order to adjust to a healthful lifestyle.