Academic journal article The Future of Children

Adolescent Offenders with Mental Disorders

Academic journal article The Future of Children

Adolescent Offenders with Mental Disorders

Article excerpt


Thomas Grisso points out that youth with mental disorders make up a significant subgroup of youth who appear in U.S. juvenile courts. And he notes that juvenile justice systems today are struggling to determine how best to respond to those youths' needs, both to safeguard their own welfare and to reduce re-offending and its consequences for the community. In this article, Grisso examines research and clinical evidence that may help in shaping a public policy that addresses that question.

Clinical science, says Grisso, offers a perspective that explains why the symptoms of mental disorders in adolescence can increase the risk of impulsive and aggressive behaviors. Research on delinquent populations suggests that youth with mental disorders are, indeed, at increased risk for engaging in behaviors that bring them to the attention of the juvenile justice system. Nevertheless, evidence indicates that most youth arrested for delinquencies do not have serious mental disorders.

Grisso explains that a number of social phenomena of the past decade, such as changes in juvenile law and deficiencies in the child mental health system, appear to have been responsible for bringing far more youth with mental disorders into the juvenile justice system. Research shows that almost two-thirds of youth in juvenile justice detention centers and correctional facilities today meet criteria for one or more mental disorders.

Calls for a greater emphasis on mental health treatment services in juvenile justice, however, may not be the best answer. Increasing such services in juvenile justice could simply mean that youth would need to be arrested in order to get mental health services. Moreover, many of the most effective treatment methods work best when applied in the community, while youth are with their families rather than removed from them.

A more promising approach, argues Grisso, could be to develop community systems of care that create a network of services cutting across public child welfare agency boundaries. This would allow the juvenile justice system to play a more focused and limited treatment role. This role would include emergency mental health services for youth in its custody and more substantial mental health care only for the smaller share of youth who cannot be treated safely in the community.


When adolescents face problems affecting their welfare, most communities in the United States have available at least four public systems with which to respond in the interests of society, families, and youth. These four systems specialize in education, child protection, juvenile justice, and mental health. Like a mall's storefronts, each offers a somewhat different type of product. Each of the four storefronts has its own door through which community members can pass when they have determined that an adolescent's needs fit the professions, skills, and objectives of the personnel and products within.

In recent years, however, communities have begun to recognize that this model of service delivery for adolescents--so logical in its organization around specific types of problems and services--is not consistent with the nature of adolescents' needs. The problems in which the separate systems specialize--learning problems, parental neglect, delinquent behavior, and mental disorders--are not like medical problems of teeth, eyes, bones, and skin, each of which arises independent of the other. Hundreds of thousands of youth need the services of all four of these public systems at once, often because their problems have interrelated causes. Communities whose policies organize behavioral and social services for youth according to a specialty-store logic often have difficulty addressing this reality. The storefronts themselves do not face each other and often do not even recognize that they are serving the same customers.

Nowhere has this difficulty been more evident in recent years than in society's responses to delinquent youth with mental disorders. …

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