The juvenile justice system is too often used as a dumping ground for youth with mental health needs. Research shows that about half of youth involved with the juvenile justice system meet the criteria for at least one mental health or substance abuse disorder. Juvenile justice systems regularly act as way stations where youth are confined solely due to lack of community mental health treatment. These juvenile justice facilities are often overcrowded and understaffed and youth are exposed to stress, trauma and serious harms. Youth who have behavioral and mental health needs are particularly vulnerable to these harms, which result in serious injuries, self-mutilation, suicides and death.
Juvenile justice involvement is only appropriate when a youth's delinquency -- not his or her needs or disability -- is the primary reason for confinement. Vulnerable youth can be identified through comprehensive screening and assessments in order to provide appropriate treatment, supports and services. Mechanisms to divert youth such as wraparound services and referrals to community-based programs are all gaining recognition as strategies for getting justice-involved youth into mental health services, which are less expensive and more effective settings for meeting their needs.
Principles of Reform
- Divert Youth from the Justice System
- Reduce Institutionalization
- Eliminate Racial and Ethnic Disparities
- Ensure Access to Quality Counsel
- Create a Range of Effective Community-Based Programs
- Recognize and Serve Youth with Specialized Needs
- Improve Aftercare and Reentry
- Engage Youth, Family, and Community
- Keep Youth Out of Adult Courts, Jails, and Prisons
Each National Juvenile Justice Network member embraces these principles of reform, and conducts state-based work on at least two principles. These principles and the associated text are from "Juvenile Justice Reform: A Blueprint," developed by the Youth Transition Funders Group.