Recognize and Serve Youth with Specialized Needs

Policy Position 9: Recognize and Serve Youth with Specialized Needs

Youth with mental health needs are often inappropriately placed in the juvenile justice system. Research shows that 70 percent of youth involved with the juvenile justice system meet the criteria for at least one mental health or substance abuse disorder.[1]  Juvenile justice systems should not be used as way stations where youth are confined solely due to lack of community mental health treatment. Many 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 may result in serious injuries, self-mutilation, suicides, and death.

Juvenile justice involvement is only appropriate when a youth’s behavior—not his or her needs or disabilities—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 mental health courts, wraparounds, 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. 

1 Jennie Shufelt and Joseph Cocozza. Youth and Mental Health Disorders in the Juvenile Justice System: Results from a Multi-State Prevalence Study. National Center for Mental Health and Juvenile Justice. June 2006. Available at: Last accessed: May 6, 2014. 

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