Category Archives: Juvenile Justice

Defragmenting Child Mental Health

If you’re ready for a crash course in mental health, read Alison Cuellar’s article in the new volume of Future of Children Policies to Promote Child Health.” She introduces us to internalizing and externalizing conditions that children experience, as well as the trajectories and outcomes that can accompany them. She also describes prevention programs, and interventions from academic, juvenile justice, and medical and social service angles.

Unfortunately, well intended programs and interventions often come with an unintended consequence. Cuellar argues that due, in part, to differing funding structures of schools, health care providers, and juvenile justice programs, there is an inherent lack of integration among treatment providers; thus, children sometimes fall through the cracks. For example, health insurance might not pay for anything beyond direct professional services provided to a child; whereas parent education or family treatment might be necessary but not be covered. Another example would be programs funded by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration—while there might be more flexible funding available for intervention and prevention initiatives through this funder than health insurance, funding is limited to particular communities and settings; thus excluding children not found in these areas.

I’ll be frank in saying that there isn’t an easy method to defragment a complicated system of service delivery. Cuellar concludes that we need to identify ways to overcome fragmentation between services. Volume editors Currie and Reichman call on governments to follow the lead of businesses and make use of the vast amount of data available to them to “create an integrated portrait of child health or to target policies to those who have the most to gain from them.”

In a blog post last year, I wrote about how the Affordable Care Act was a step in the right direction to allow for a more integrated health care system and that there were existing initiatives, such as the patient-centered medical home model, that encourage coordination among providers. Perhaps future policies and practices will encourage coordination among mental health services, thereby improving child mental health.

Juvenile Justice Moving into the Twenty First Century

This week, the Supreme Court decided to effectively bar mandatory life terms for juveniles. (The New York Times) The ruling marks a significant point in a long period of transition for juvenile justice policy.

Beginning in the 1980s through the early 1990s, youth crime rates rose in the United States. Some politicians felt that the juvenile system was ineffective and that there was no evidence of rehabilitation in youth offenders. They saw the system as something that worked for the crimes of a milder time, but that with the violent crimes being committed by current youth, they needed more punitive policies. “As the juvenile crime rates – particularly homicide – rose, politicians across the country rushed to enact tough policies through several legislative strategies.” More than 250,000 young offenders were transferred each year into the adult system–getting adult time for adult crime. (Adolescent Development and the Regulation of Youth Crime- Future of Children-“Juvenile Justice”)

Discussions around the juvenile justice system, particularly the trying of children as adults and mandatory life sentences continued, with people from both sides of the issue passionate in their stance. Gradually, policies began to change. “In 2005, in Roper v. Simmons, the court eliminated the juvenile death penalty. In 2010, in Graham v. Florida, the court ruled that sentencing juvenile offenders to life without the possibility of parole was also unconstitutional, but only for crimes that did not involve killings.” And this week the Supreme Court ruled that laws requiring adolescents convicted of homicide to receive a life sentence are unconstitutional.

“Mandatory life without parole for a juvenile precludes consideration of his chronological age and its hallmark features–among them, immaturity, impetuosity, and failure to appreciate risks and consequences,” stated Justice Kagan. “It prevents taking into account the family and home environment that surrounds him–and from which he cannot usually extricate himself–no matter how brutal or dysfunctional” (The New York Times)

In their chapter, “Adolescent Development and the Regulation of Youth Crime,” Elizabeth Scott and Laurence Steinberg state that “Research in developmental psychology supports the view that several characteristics of adolescence distinguish young offenders from adults in ways that mitigate culpability. These adolescent traits include deficiencies in decision-making ability, greater vulnerability to external coercion, and the relatively unformed nature of adolescent character.”

Laurence Steinberg, professor of psychology at Temple University and issue editor of the Future of Children’s Juvenile Justice volume states in the New York Times, “About 10 percent of young violent criminals become adult offenders. But no one knows which ones. We tracked about 1,300 young convicted felons, the majority of them violent, over seven years. We interviewed each kid for hours so we knew more about them than any court will ever hope to know, and we saw them every six months. We were unable to predict which ones would be in the 10 percent.”

As the Future of Children’s policy brief on juvenile justice notes, “Both widely accepted legal principles and research on adolescent immaturity argue that juveniles are less responsible for their criminal behavior than adults and should therefore receive less severe punishment. Research shows that harsh punishment in adult facilities increases the probability of future violent crimes and that most youngsters who commit criminal offenses will abandon illegal behavior as they enter adulthood.”

“Monday’s ruling,” Steinberg said, “along with the earlier ones on juveniles, is clearly a win from the point of view of developmental science.”

“Lawmakers may be ready to approach juvenile justice policy more thoughtfully today than they have in a generation. If so, a large body of recent research that was not available twenty years ago offers insights about adolescence and about young offenders. Using this scientific knowledge to shape the direction of juvenile justice policy will promote both social welfare and fairness.” (Adolescent Development and the Regulation of Youth Crime- Future of Children-“Juvenile Justice”)

For more, go to: www.futureofchildren.org.

FOC Research Supports Supreme Court Decision Rejecting Life without Parole for Juvenile Offenders

Yesterday’sSupreme Court decision, banning sentences of life without parole for juvenile offenders who have not committed murder, was right on. As our volume Juvenile Justice demonstrates, over a decade of social science research has demonstrated that adolescents lack the emotional and mental maturity of adults and this needs to be considered when making decisions about culpability and punishment.

Compared to adults, adolescents are impulsive, short-sighted, and easily influenced by peers. In general, they do not think ahead, and they are unduly influenced by the potential rewards of risky decisions and less concerned about potential costs. Most crimes committed by juveniles are impulsive, stupid, non-violent acts that occur when they are with their friends, not calculated decisions that are well thought through.
Therefore, punitive policies often do not deter juveniles from crime because the same factors that lead adolescents to commit crimes in the first place make them less likely to be deterred by punitive sanctions. To be deterred by the prospect of a long sentence, or incarceration, or transfer into the adult system, a teenager needs to think long-term, like an adult. This is not to say that juvenile offenders should be not held accountable for their crimes. They absolutely should – but in a way that recognizes the offenders’ youth and gives them a second chance. Life without parole for non-homicide offenses does not take into account that juvenile criminals may well mature into law abiding adults with the proper treatment and interventions. To refuse to offer these and lock teens up for life is indeed cruel and unusual punishment.

Partnering with Community Mental Health Services Aids Juvenile Justice System

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.

Reform Juvenile Justice Programs Today

Over the past decade researchers have identified intervention strategies and program models that reduce juvenile delinquency and promote pro-social development. However, while we have more than ten years of solid research about evidence-based programs, only about five percent of eligible youth participate in these programs.

The result is a waste of human capital and money. First, delinquency increases the risk of drug use and dependency, school drop-out, incarceration, injury, early pregnancy, and adult criminality. Second, since most adult criminals begin their criminal careers as juveniles, preventing delinquency prevents the onset of adult criminal careers and thus reduces the financial and emotional burden of crime on victims and on society.
Put bluntly — it is penny-wise and pound-foolish not to implement evidence-based programs. While it costs states billions of dollars a year to arrest, prosecute, incarcerate, and treat offenders, investing in successful delinquency-prevention programs can save taxpayers seven to ten dollars for every dollar invested, primarily in the form of reduced spending on prisons.
States don’t implement evidence-based treatment programs for a number of reasons.
  • First, agencies rarely invest in developing data systems that permit them to monitor which programs are working and which are not; therefore, most states’ juvenile justice systems have no idea if they are spending their money wisely.
  • Second, many policymakers are often unaware of research evidence on programs and policies that are not only effective in reducing juvenile delinquency but also cost-effective.
  • Third, often what works is at odds with “get tough on crime” public sentiment, and some policy makers are unwilling to choose evidence over politics.
Researchers have identified a dozen "proven" delinquency-prevention programs. Another twenty to thirty "promising" programs are still being tested. The most successful programs are those that prevent youth from engaging in delinquent behaviors in the first place, divert first-time offenders from further encounters with the justice system, and emphasize family interactions. A full list of programs that have been evaluated for delinquency prevention and intervention and an estimation of their cost savings and effectiveness can be found in Table 2 in an article by Peter Greenwood in our most recent volume of The Future of Children.
Reform of the juvenile justice system makes sense from all perspectives. Many states are poised to begin this work today, if for no other reason than to save taxpayer money being spent on building prisons. We need to create a system that decreases the number of youth becoming delinquent in the first place and prevents those youth who do stray from becoming adult criminals.

Juvenile Justice: Keeping Teens Out of Jail

A recent incident involving an eight year old murder suspect has reignited the debate over the age at which children should be charged as adults. “Experts Doubt That 8-Year-Old’s Taped Confession in Double Killing Is Admissible,” New York Times, Nov. 21, 2008 True, this was a highly unusual case (As Dr. Tom Grisso, one of the authors who contributed to The Future of Children volume on Juvenile Justice, noted to the New York Times, trying an eight year old as an adult would be “more than extraordinary. It would be totally unique.” And predictably, the jurisdiction issue has since been resolved (it is now in juvenile court with a plea agreement being offered). But the case did raise the more common issue of when it is appropriate to treat juveniles as adults and move them from the juvenile justice system to the criminal justice system.

According to a recent Future of Children policy brief both widely accepted legal principles and research on adolescent immaturity argue that juveniles are less responsible for their criminal behavior than adults and should there­fore receive less severe punishment. Research shows that harsh punishment in adult facilities increases the probability of future violent crimes and that most youngsters who commit criminal offenses will abandon illegal behavior as they enter adulthood. Scien­tific evaluations of prevention and treatment programs for youth that provide systematic treatment in community and family settings show that these programs significantly re­duce future criminal behavior without the need for harsh sanctions. States should adapt their laws on juvenile crime to emphasize evidence-based treatment and to avoid harsh punishment for all but repeat violent offenders. (From “Keeping Adolescents out of Prison,” by Laurence Steinberg and Ron Haskins). This issue was discussed in depth at recent Future of Children conference on this topic.