Mental Health Issues Burden the Juvenile Justice System

Article excerpt

As a member of Congress concerned with the treatment of mental health and substance abuse in America, I have seen a lot of tragedies and heard a lot of sad stories. Our national failure to properly appreciate and address problems of mental illness and substance abuse produces catastrophic human consequences.

There is nowhere that the failings of our public mental health system are felt more acutely than in our jails and prisons across the country, and nowhere are these failures more heartbreaking than in the field of juvenile justice. Broken families, crumbling schools, crime-ridden neighborhoods--it is corrections professionals who most clearly see these products of our failures elsewhere.

Seventy percent of the young people entering the juvenile justice system have a mental health disorder. Of those, 20 percent have serious mental illnesses, while another 20 percent have a co-occurring substance abuse disorder, according to the National Center for Mental Health and Juvenile Justice's 2006 report Blueprint for Change.

Of course, mentally ill inmates are by no means restricted to the juvenile system. However, in the case of juvenile justice, detention and correctional facilities provide a unique opportunity to intervene before it is too late. In juvenile facilities, we can identify those children most in need of interventions and connect them to the services and supports they need in their communities in order to thrive.

The question when it comes to children in the juvenile justice system, and particularly those with mental illness, is: "What do we have to do between the time juveniles are first picked up and the time they return home to reduce the chances that they will be back in the criminal justice system in the future?"

That question is timely because Congress soon will be reauthorizing the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA). Juvenile justice rarely finds itself at the top of the Congressional agenda, and those of us in Congress who care about this issue cannot miss this opportunity to make real progress.

Frankly, during the last several years in Congress it has been baffling to see the way some people define being "tough on crime" when it comes to juveniles. The last time JJDPA was reauthorized, I and like-minded members of Congress had to fight hard to beat back the overly punitive approach that some members of Congress believed played well on the campaign trail. One can tell a lot about what a member is thinking based on what he or she names a piece of legislation. During the last reauthorization, some of the bills that were offered included the Consequences for Juvenile Offenders Act, the Violent and Repeat Juvenile Offender Accountability Act, and the Violent Youth Predator Act. Fortunately, none of these bills became law. It is fortunate because the notion that our number one priority in dealing with children in the justice system should be punishment is ludicrous. Unfortunately, that is what some of my colleagues seem to believe.

For me, the number one priority in dealing with these juveniles should be to make sure that when they leave the justice system they will not be back. Earlier this year, I introduced the Juvenile Crime Reduction Act. I gave it that name because addressing mental illness among juvenile offenders is not just about mental health--it is about crime reduction. Mental illness is just one part of the juvenile justice system, but it is undeniably a big part. To ignore this fact as we move through the reauthorization of JJDPA would be unwise.

If we have any hope of alleviating some of the pressures caused by the high number of youths with mental illness in the juvenile justice system, there are three steps we have to take. First, we have to implement systems of early screening and assessment. Many correctional facilities already screen incoming juveniles for mental illness and substance abuse disorders, but we need everyone to have a scientifically sound method of screening and assessment. …