Child Crime Prevention & Safety Center

Minors in Custody – Mental Health Issues

Mental Health Issues

There has been a significant increase in the number of children in custody in prisons and juvenile detention facilities who suffer from mental illness. In many cases, the stress of a juvenile detention facility will exacerbate a young person’s mental health condition and can prevent them from improving. Juvenile courts have started to recognize the connection between juvenile crime and juvenile mental health issues and many courts are trying new ways to connect these youth with the appropriate treatment that they require.

Mental Health Concerns and Juvenile Justice

Every year, over 600,000 minors are placed in a juvenile detention facility and over 70,000 youth are housed in a facility on any given day in the United States. Minors who are housed in juvenile detention facilities have a rate of mental health disorders that is three times that of the general youth population. In fact, studies have shown that between 65 and 70 percent of minors in the juvenile justice system have a diagnosable mental health condition. Over 60 percent of those with mental health disorders also have substance abuse issues. Additionally, it is believed that 30 percent of minors in custody have mental health issues serious enough to merit immediate and significant treatment.

While housed in a juvenile detention facility, minors will often suffer trauma that they would not experience outside, including bullying, physical assaults, and threats. Studies show that 75% of those in the juvenile justice system experience some form of traumatic victimization and 93% of those in a detention facility report being exposed to incidents including accidents, illnesses, physical or sexual abuse, and violence.

One of the most significant issues in juvenile detention facilities is the use of solitary confinement as a punishment. Nearly 35 percent of juvenile offenders in detention facilities have been placed into forced isolation or solitary confinement. Many of the minors who commit infractions and get into trouble while in custody suffer from mental health or developmental disorders. Being sent to solitary confinement tends to exacerbate these mental health conditions and will cause significant distress and harm to youth. Extended use of solitary confinement has been shown to cause depression, hallucinations, panic attacks, cognitive deficiencies, obsessive-compulsive disorder, paranoia, anxiety, and anger in youth. In the most extreme cases, extended periods in solitary confinement has resulted in suicides. Many states are limiting the use of solitary confinement for juvenile offenders and looking for ways to provide effective treatment for the most troubled youth in custody.

Juvenile Mental Health Court

Many juvenile delinquency court systems throughout the country have recognized that juvenile offenders with mental health disorders have unique requirements. Los Angeles County is one such court that operates a specialized Juvenile Mental Health Court specifically aimed at juvenile offenders who have diagnosed mental health conditions or whose offenses demonstrate a link to a disorder or disability. Instead of extended detentions in a juvenile facility, juvenile mental health court will develop an individualized case plan for every eligible young offender who qualifies. The plan will often include home, family, therapeutic, education and adult transition services. Psychiatric social workers will help the juvenile obtain mental health and other services from all available community resources.

New Developments in Addressing Mental Health Concerns in Juvenile Offenders

As states increasingly recognize the harmful effects caused by extended detention in juvenile facilities, new methods and procedures are being introduced that are designed to address the mental health needs of juvenile offenders. Detention facilities are increasingly staffed with mental health professionals who can provide appropriate treatment to youthful offenders while they are incarcerated. Detention facilities will often provide increased screening for mental health disorders for all offenders. In many cases, a youth offender may suffer from significant mental health concerns that have gone undiagnosed or unrecognized. The detention facility may be able to provide appropriate treatment solutions that can help reduce recidivism and can ensure the minor receives appropriate medication or counseling.