Mental Health and Treatment of Juvenile Offenders Essay Example

Criminal justice in the United States is a complex system of agencies, providing law enforcement, prosecution, courts, and corrections complying with any crime imaginable, for any person imaginable (National Center for Victims of Crime 2008). This methodology once had an exception, at first juvenile and adult offenders were persecuted in the same way and held in the same facilities. Reform has created a completely different branch of criminal justice, creating juvenile justice. This change was led by the understanding that, "Young people are developing, and it is only right for adults to recognize this fact, and to treat them differently from adults when they do wrong." (SAGE publications 2017 p.310). Upon discovering this, the system became more cognizant to the minds of minors, understanding what treatments would be more effective, and in 20 years every state had separate criminal justice systems to accommodate juveniles (Juvenile Law Center 2018). This consideration was radical, but by comprehending the difference between the juvenile mind and that of an adult, transformation was enlisted within the juvenile justice system. The importance of addressing and treating mental illness became prominent due to its prevalence in juvenile offenders. Since then juvenile crime rates have reached all-time low raising the question of, "To what extent has emphasis on mental health affected the way juvenile detention facilities are treating youth offenders?" The knowledge and recent understanding of mental illness has increased the treatment of mental illness inside and outside of juvenile detention centers, decreasing the rate of juvenile incarceration.

How the Juvenile Justice System has Changed

Although the juvenile justice system is relatively new compared to the adult justice system, reforms have already been made to better manage and improve the productivity of the system. The Juvenile Law Center, an organization that has earned numerous awards such as the MacArthur Award for Creative and Effective Institutions, and more for their success in child advocacy, explains the informality of the early juvenile justice system. Most hearings were done behind closed doors, in which minors were placed in separate rehabilitation facilities for minors to go about with specialized supervision, education, and guidance, providing youths with a support system to prevent crime again. However, this was altered when juvenile crime rate increased, causing a more traditional court system to be adopted and tough on crime punishments to become more common, losing key rehabilitative practices within the system, not addressing the difficulties of mental illness and their prominence. Since then the system has reintroduced some of these in efforts to make it more effective.

Treatment of Mental Illness within Institutions

Although juvenile offenders enter the juvenile justice system to provide equity for the false deeds they have committed, howbeit their actions have been proven to sprout outside of malicious intent, and instead as a symptom of mental illness. Bipolar disorder, and depression, both common mental illnesses, have justified increased risk-taking, and aggression (Underwood, Washington 2016). Many decisions entailing risk include coming in contact with the law, experimenting with illegal substances, vandalism etc., which links mental ailments to the juvenile justice system. Further proven by Cauffman, Ph.D. who states, "Approximately 70% of the males and 81% of the females scored above the clinical cutoff on at least one of the following five MAYSI-2 scales: Alcohol/Drug Use, Angry-Irritable, Depressed-Anxious, Somatic Complaints, and/or Suicide Ideation." Not only does this again emphasize the major role mental illness plays within the juvenile justice system, but it also describes the magnitude of the issue.

At this point, detention centers have become hubs for mental illness treatment because a greater part of high-risk adolescents struggling with this end up there. They have adapted accordingly to accommodate the psychological needs of offenders. The most effective being a community-based treatment, largely outside of detention facilities, as the best way to treat mental illnesses of nonviolent incarcerated youths, outlined by Grisso, a clinical psychologist. Even though this is not a reasonable solution for violent offenders or inmates who aren't allowed in the community psychological help or counseling would be beneficial as well. Furthermore, because of its prominence among delinquents, the majority of juvenile detention centers in the United States have adopted a program to cope with mental illness.

Treatment of Mental Illness Preventing Incarceration

Community programs are not only instituted while a child is incarcerated, but to prevent incarceration, child welfare has been instituted providing support to those who need it. Digitale, a pediatric scientist at Stanford, and Carrion, M.D. at Stanford Children's Health, state that, "Children experiencing four types of trauma were 30 times more likely to have behavior and learning problems than those not exposed to trauma." By describing the effects of trauma on a child, Digitale connects juvenile justice to child welfare, emphasizing the importance of non-damaging early years of life. However according to Myers, a law professor at McGeorge School of Law, child welfare did not become a national issue until the 1960s, so that by 1967 all states had abuse reporting laws and eventually foster care. For the first time, child protective services were available all over the country, which at first were not very effective but since then, an increase of child protective services caused the eventual decrease in traumatic experiences leading to a decrease in juvenile incarceration as well.


The number of juveniles placed in detention centers has significantly decreased in the last 20 years. In 2015, the number of youths incarcerated reached 152 of 100,000 youth which is less than half of the previous 356 of 100,000 in 1997 (Child trends 2015). This drastic decrease is a result of invigorated rehabilitation efforts aiming towards mental health understanding. Yet the actuality of these efforts is controversial. Dishion, McCord, and Poulin, all argue that the detention of juvenile offenders leads to reoffending in the future and more illegal actions. However, this article was written in 1999 when the juvenile incarceration rate was only beginning to decline. Criticizing the effectiveness of the juvenile justice system at that time was reasonable and well backed. Yet now more than ever, the system has reformed and as studies have shown, decreased the rate of youth incarceration, proving the effectiveness of the system.


Alongside the programs outside of detention centers, a plethora of programs to assist incarcerated juvenile offenders has made a positive impact. Since 2000 alone, juvenile arrest rates have decreased by 60%, according to the fact-based evidence provided by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. What has caused this trend? The decrease in juvenile arrest rates is likely linked to the reformed child welfare system, or out of detention programs. By committing to maintaining the mental health and well being of youths, their risk of intervening with the law decrease significantly, indicated by the recent decline of the rate of juvenile incarceration, as a result of the internal and external changes to the juvenile justice system.


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