Research on the role of the juvenile justice system in addressing the mental health needs of young offenders will require cooperation between key stakeholders that contribute with relevant knowledge of the issue. Offending patterns of the youth are connected with social, personal, and political factors, so it is crucial to take them into consideration during research. Furthermore, inadequate policy development and the lack of training among juvenile correction personnel call for the enhanced efforts to address the mental health needs of juvenile offenders. Policy implications of the study may be associated with enhanced screening efforts of the youth with mental health issues and the development of community-based interventions alternative to incarceration.
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Mental Health: A Challenge to the Juvenile Justice System
Examining the problem of mental health and addressing the needs of individuals within the context of juvenile justice are key imperatives for stakeholders interested in reducing and preventing offenses committed by people who have not reached adulthood. To be precise, key stakeholders that could be involved in the research of mental health in juvenile justice include directors of juvenile justice and mental health agencies, family members of individuals who committed a crime, law enforcement agencies, service providers (e.g. mental health institutions), advocacy groups, and judges (MacKinnon-Lewis, Kaufman, & Frabutt, 2002). The collaboration between the mentioned research project stakeholders with regards to sharing opinions and solutions can significantly enhance the validity and relevance of the research since only those individuals that are tightly integrated into the sphere of juvenile justice possess knowledge of the topics included in the research project.
With regard to social factors that may influence the research on mental health in juvenile justice, the characteristics of the area where juvenile offenders committed a crime are crucial. For example, if the offender comes from a poverty-stricken neighborhood where crime is a mundane part of life, it is highly likely that his or her criminal activity was significantly encouraged by the characteristics of that neighborhood. On the other hand, personal factors may play even a greater role since not all juvenile offenders come from criminal areas. For instance, if a child has been diagnosed with a mental illness and his or her parents did nothing to address the problem, then there is an increased likelihood that the criminal activity was directly correlated with the individuals’ mental illness. As to the political factors that may influence the research on mental health in juvenile justice, weakening of major political institutions and political instability in the region (United Nations, 2003) may be contributors to increased criminal activity among juveniles. Moreover, when there is a lack of support from political stakeholders in the process of reducing the occurrence of juvenile offenses and addressing the mental needs of the youth, it is highly unlikely that the process will bring positive results.
Because the issue of mental health in juvenile justice is associated with connections between the criminal justice system, politics, and healthcare (mental health institutions), interest groups that may be involved in the research include the law enforcement and courts, local governmental bodies (Shelden, 2011), and healthcare organizations that focus on the provision of mental health care services to the population. Moreover, organizations such as the Bureau of Justice Statistics can make a significant contribution to the research because they can provide important data on juvenile crime rates or expenditures of the juvenile justice system. Combining the efforts of the mentioned interest groups will ensure that the problem of mental health in juvenile justice is explored from different perspectives since various groups of interest will have unique views on how the issue should be resolved.
Examining patterns that might influence the direction of the research is the most important component with regards to mental health in juvenile justice since there is a variety of factors that either increase or decrease the likelihood of mental health problems’ occurrence among juvenile offenders. First, it is crucial to mention the pattern of age differences examined in the research conducted by Richards (2011). It was found that juvenile offenders aged 15 and younger were more likely to have compromised ability to act as competent defendants in court (Richards, 2011). Moreover, one-third of offenders aged 11-13 and one-fifth of offenders aged 14-15 were found to be as impaired in their capacity to be competent defendants as mentally ill adults that were found incompetent to stand trial (Richards, 2011). Second, it is important to mention juvenile offending patterns that occur during their lifetime. Offending patterns mean that the majority of juvenile offenders (either with or without mental health issues) grow out of committing a crime, but they do so at various rates. For example, depending on gender, some juvenile offenders are more likely to refrain from crime while others continue their criminal activity and stop when they are much older. Third, mental health patterns of juvenile offenders can impact the direction of research because they are not consistent within the entire population involved in the study and may change depending on the personal or social characteristics of young offenders.
According to Underwood and Washington (2016) inadequate care models, insufficient policy development, and inadequate practice prevent juvenile correction personnel from addressing the mental health problems among juvenile offenders. Therefore, policy implications arising from the research can be associated with screening and prevention procedures targeted at identifying the youth that may be prone to exhibiting criminal behavior as well as policies mandating specific training designed to familiarize the juvenile correction personnel with key methods of addressing the issue of mental health among offenders residing in a correctional facility.
An example of the policy that may result from the research is the screening measure employed in Massachusetts called Youth Screening Inventory designed to identify the youth with mental health issues and the reoccurring use of harmful substances (NYSAP, 2016). Similar screening procedures can be used in various states to identify the prevalence and severity of mental health problems among the youth. To address the needs of juvenile offenders with mental health problems, the government can also implement effective diversion policies that focus on providing alternatives to incarceration and encouraging community-based mental health interventions, as mentioned by NCSL (n.d.).
To conclude, research on mental health issues among juvenile offenders will require collaboration between key stakeholders (law enforcement, mental health care providers, the community, etc.) because each perspective on the problem will help the researcher understand its scope and significance. It is also important to mention that the research may present some ethical concerns since it will involve human subjects (juvenile offenders). With regard to ethical concerns, the researcher should invest time and effort to acquire informed consent and ensure confidentiality procedures that pertain to the field of criminal justice.
MacKinnon-Lewis, C., Kaufman, M., & Frabutt, J. (2002). Juvenile justice and mental health: Youth and families in the middle. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 7, 353-363.
NCSL. (n.d.). Mental health needs of juvenile offenders. Web.
NYSAP. (2016). MAYSI-2. Web.
Richards, K. (2011). What makes juvenile offenders different from adult offenders? Web.
Shelden, R. (2011). Interest groups and criminal justice policy. Web.
Underwood, L., & Washington, A. (2016). Mental illness and juvenile offenders. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 13(228), 1-14.
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United Nations. (2003). Juvenile delinquency. Web.