Incarcerated and Court-Involved Adolescents: Counseling an At-Risk Population. (Practice & Theory)

Article excerpt

The number of adolescents being jailed and otherwise involved in the criminal justice system in the United States has continued to climb over the past two decades (Smith, 1998). In terms of incarceration alone, the average daily population for juvenile delinquents in 1994 (N = 23,089) surpassed the housing capacity in the juvenile detention centers, leading to the placement of youth in adult facilities (Wordes & Jones, 1998). Many other youth are placed on probation or prematurely paroled, with many of the latter persons having been assigned to locked-door treatment facilities for adolescent criminal and sex offenders (Wordes & Jones, 1998).

The incarceration and criminal activity of youth are currently major problems in the United States, with more and more youth being placed in state correctional, county jail, and juvenile delinquency facilities each year. According to the 1999 national report on juvenile offenders by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP), the overall juvenile arrest rate increased 22% between 1989 and 1997 (Snyder & Sickmund, 1999). The female population is becoming an increasing concern with arrest rates between 1981 and 1997 rising in aggravated assault (139%), weapons law violations (191%), and larceny theft (40%; Snyder & Sickmund, 1999).

The scope of the problem is significant, and the statistics are sobering and even frightening. In 1997, there were 9,200 arrests for every 100,000 persons ages 10 through 17 in the United States (Snyder, 1997). Many of the crimes for which adolescents were arrested were violent in nature: 14% for murder, 14% for aggravated assault, 17% for forcible rape, and 30% for robbery, with 25% falling into a wide variety of categories such as sex offenses, vandalism, and arson (Snyder, 1997). Currently, adolescents are being arrested for serious and violent crimes that go beyond the traditional "status" offenses such as running away, curfew violations, or truancy. The economic costs of juvenile crime to society are significant. It is estimated that the cost to society of just one adolescent who leaves high school and turns to a life of crime or drugs, or both, amounts to between 1.7-2.3 million dollars over their lifetime (Snyder & Sickmund, 1999). This poignant statistic speaks to the crucial need for therapeutic change for these youth.

The term at risk is being increasingly used in the literature to reflect the concerns of counselors and other human service providers for a wide array of youth populations. In particular, these populations seem to share the likelihood of having been exposed to or victimized by a variety of harmful factors (Briscoe, 1997; Capuzzi & Gross, 1995; Milano, Forrest, & Gumaer, 1997; Noam, 1996; Pierce, 1994; Schrenzel, 1994). These factors include physical and sexual violence, emotional and physical neglect, illicit drug use, gang involvement, and other factors deemed dangerous to the development of a child or adolescent (Granello, 2000). Incarcerated adolescents should be thought of as a "highly at-risk" population that manifests all of the factors frequently associated with other at-risk groups but also the added factor of legal involvement or imprisonment (Binder, 1988).

Little has been written in the counseling literature on this unfortunate population in terms of their predicament and various treatment approaches. There is a critical need for counselors and other human service professionals to formulate a viable approach to the treatment of adolescents who are involved with the juvenile justice system. However, many counselors and mental health professionals choose to avoid working with these populations given their legal involvement, emotional and behavioral volatility, resistance to treatment, and multiple problems (Hanna, Hanna, & Keys, 1999). The purpose of this article is to help counselors to conceive of legally involved youth as a special at-risk group in need of both direct service and social advocacy. …