Mental Health and the Juvenile Justice System: Exploring the Extent of the Problem

Linda Ricketson, Prairie View A & M University
Clete Snell, Prairie View A&M University

The mental health needs of youth in the juvenile jsutice system have received more attention at the Federal level in the past two years than in the past three decades combined. Recently, the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice undertook a series of investigations that documented the consistent inadequacy of mental health care and services in juvenile correctional facilities in a number of states (Butterfield, 1998). Also, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Center for Mental Health Services initiated the first national survey of juvenile justice facilities to identify available mental health services (Center for Mental Health Services, 1998).

A multi-state survey, conducted by the National Mental Health Association (NMHA) and the National GAINS Center for people with Co-Occurring Disorders in the justice system, found that mental health problems typically are not identified until after children are involved in the juvenile jsutice system, if at all. These children get little if any treatment (Senate Research Center, 2001).

The NMHA/GAINS Center survey found an inadequate, fragmented system for youth with behavioral health problems in justice settings, with few specific programs available in jurisdictions surveyed. In communities where programs are available, the efforts address only a portion of the juvenile justice population, and even fewer communities have programs that target youth with co-occurring mental health and substance abuse disorders (Juvenile-Justice Systems, 1999).

The "get tough" attitude toward crime has shifted the mission of the juvenile justice system from rehabilitation to punishment and retribution. This philosophy combined with largely successful efforts in many states to abolish state mental health care for children and adolescents has creayed a population of seriously ill youth for which adequate services do not exist or cannot be assessed. Many juveniles with serious mental disorders have not been responsive to outpatient intervention (Ryan, 2001).

The trend has also forced courts and the juvenile corrections system to address mental-health related issues for youth that had been previously restricted primarily to adults, such as a constitutional right to mental health treatment (Woolard, et al., 1992), the applicability of the "not guilty by the reason of insanity" defense (Hebran, hawk, and Tate, 1996), and mental competency guidelines (Woolard, Reppucci, & Redding, 1996).

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Updated 05/20/2006