Child Crime Prevention & Safety Center

Juvenile Delinquency Court and Health Issues

Juvenile delinquency courts throughout the United States typically are increasingly recognizing the significant roles that health and wellness play in a minor’s rehabilitation. Studies show that many of the minors appearing in juvenile delinquency court suffer from health issues, including mental health disorders, that affect their behavior, development and decision-making process. In many cases, these health issues are undiagnosed and untreated. Juvenile delinquency courts are increasingly incorporating medical and mental health counseling and treatment solutions when working with youthful offenders.

Drugs and Alcohol

Studies have shown that many of the minors involved in the criminal justice system are affected by drug and/or alcohol abuse; either their own use or substance use that occurs within their home. There is a strong association between substance abuse and delinquency which places a high burden on local juvenile justice courts.

The rate of alcohol and illicit drug use among minors has been steadily increasing. In addition, juveniles report using drugs and alcohol at increasingly younger ages, which can lead to a lifetime of drug and alcohol dependency. Studies of drug use among minors in juvenile delinquency courts have shown increasing levels of abuse. Higher numbers of minors are testing positive for drugs in monitoring programs conducted nationwide. Some jurisdictions showed positive drug test rates of up to 58 percent.

Chronic substance abuse among minors can lead to a number of serious consequences. Studies have shown that early drug and alcohol use can lead to declining grades, increased truancy from school and other activities, a stronger likelihood of dropping out of school, health-related consequences, poor relationships with peers and family and involvement in the juvenile justice system.

Health-related consequences include accidental injuries, disabilities and disease and the possibility of overdoses, which are often fatal. Alcohol-related fatalities are common and minors are more likely to be involved in drug or alcohol-related traffic fatalities. Substance abuse can also lead to mental health disorders such as depression, developmental delays, apathy and withdrawal that can have devastating effects on a minor’s well-being and development.

Mental Health Concerns

Many of the minors appearing in juvenile delinquency suffer from a number of different mental health disorders. The general adolescent population is said to have a rate of diagnosable psychiatric disorders between 9 and 21 percent. For juvenile offenders, this rate of occurrence is estimated to be as high as between 50 and 70 percent, including minors with co-occurring substance-use disorder. In fact, in many cases, these mental health issues are often unidentified and untreated until they become involved in the juvenile delinquency court system. If left untreated, minors may develop increased antisocial and criminal behavior that follows them into adulthood.

Historically, minors in juvenile delinquency courts were sentenced to serve terms in locked juvenile facilities similar to adult prisons. Studies have increasingly shown that these types of facilities can be devastating to minors with mental health disorders and can cause conditions to quickly deteriorate. The use of solitary confinement has been shown to be especially damaging to juvenile offenders with mental health disorders.

Juvenile delinquency courts are increasingly turning to probation and community resources when dealing with youthful offenders. Juvenile offenders are provided access to counseling and treatment services and use of these services has been shown to reduce recidivism rates. Some jurisdictions have created juvenile mental health specialty courts which are designed to ensure minors in these programs receive specialized treatment plans which they are expected to follow. Their progress is closely monitored by probation and through numerous court appearances. This allows youthful offenders to remain at home or within the local community, which has been shown to be critically important in providing healthy and nurturing environments for minors with mental health disorders. Increasingly, juvenile delinquency courts are adding counselors and therapists to work with youthful offenders. Minors who receive proper treatment or medication for mental health disorders have been shown to have significantly lower rates of recidivism.