Mental Illness among Juvenile Offenders-Identification and Treatment

Article excerpt

Jeffrey is a 14-year-old mass of movement. Some part of his body appears always in motion. He is quick to smile, quick to anger and rarely quiet. Jeffrey and his sisters have lived with their grandmother since his father was incarcerated for assault and his mother entered court-ordered drug treatment. Jeffrey is enrolled in school as a seventh grader, with records documenting poor attendance due to truancy, expulsions for fighting and frequent illness. He is performing below expected levels in most academic areas. Jeffrey's previous court contacts are for truancy, shoplifting and running away from home. The family is currently being monitored by the state Department of Human Services for prior allegations of neglect and domestic violence. Jeffrey has been diagnosed with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, conduct disorder and mild depression, but is currently taking no prescribed medication. His grandmother reports that he has a history of medication noncompliance and she suspects he may have shared his medicine with friends. She is concerned he may be experimenting with marijuana. Jeffrey's case manager reports that his grandmother's efforts to create a stable home for Jeffrey are hampered by her advanced age, limited economic resources and his behavior problems.

Jeffrey's profile includes some risk factors commonly associated with young offenders who present a complex mixture of treatment and custody challenges for the court, probation and corrections personnel who are responsible for supervising them in the community, and juvenile justice placements.


The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention's (OJJDP) Juvenile Offenders and Victims: 2006 National Report indicates that although the number of juveniles adjudicated for committing violent crimes has decreased, status and drug-related offenses have increased. The report also states that arrests of juvenile female offenders for violent offenses are increasing. The percentage of young offenders diagnosed with mental health and substance abuse disorders is rising, and research has shown a possible correlation between juvenile mental health disorders, offending behavior and recidivism. Studies of juvenile female offenders identify a significant relationship between their reported severe sexual, physical and emotional abuse and their high-risk behaviors (substance abuse, gang activity and truancy) and mental health disorders (post-traumatic stress disorder, major depression, anxiety and eating disorders). (1)

Research suggests that up to 70 percent (2) of the estimated daily average of more than 90,000 (3) adjudicated youths cycling through local and state adult and juvenile justice placements or facilities have a mental health disorder (e.g., conduct disorder, anxiety and depression) with a risk of suicide four times higher than the general juvenile population. More than half have histories of exposure to violence, neglect, abuse and trauma. It is estimated that up to 75 percent of young offenders have a substance abuse disorder, and as many as 20 percent of this group also suffer from a mental health disorder serious enough to impair their daily functioning. (4)

The juvenile justice system is facing the trend experienced by the adult criminal justice system--the criminalization of mental illness. Youth facilities have become substitute mental health "hospitals," while also facing the pressure of economic constraints, difficulties recruiting and retaining qualified staff, and the possible shift in focus from a treatment and rehabilitation model to one of custody and control. Legally, these facilities are obligated to provide adequate medical and mental health services to the offenders in their care. The U.S. Department of Justice, pursuant to the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act of 1980 and the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, notes that it continues to investigate allegations of systemic abuse and civil rights violations related to the conditions of confinement, including the provision of adequate mental health services and suicide prevention. …