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.
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 Childrenvolume 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 Childrenpolicy 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.