Study Finds that Almost 75% of Incarcerated Youth Have Mental Health Issues
When a youth has a mental health condition and ends up in the criminal justice system, it can start a perpetual cycle between incarceration and becoming symptomatic. Like their adult counterparts, adolescent inmates with mental health concerns often suffer without proper treatment and intervention. In 2020, it was reported that approximately 75% of incarcerated youth have mental health issues. Historically, this population has been underserved and is at greater risk of having untreated mental health conditions and being involved in multiple arrests and incarcerations.

Mental health disorders and conditions can manifest at various times during a person's life. Certain illnesses, such as depression, may become evident at any time, including during childhood. Schizophrenia symptoms may present in a person's late teens or early adulthood. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), the average onset age for bipolar disorder is approximately 25. However, the first symptoms of this psychiatric illness can also occur during the teens, or more uncommonly, in childhood. There are also mental health conditions such as substance-induced psychosis, schizoaffective disorder, and conduct disorder that may occur before adulthood.

Some mental illnesses, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), occur in response to trauma. Depression can also be trauma-induced. Further, it’s estimated that approximately 60% of incarcerated kids have child welfare backgrounds. When youths become part of the child welfare system, they often experience trauma and are at increased risk of developing one or both of these conditions. Being placed in a juvenile justice environment may exacerbate their mental health symptoms.

According to a recent report, of 61,000 detained youth in the US, about 36% had previously considered suicide, and approximately 29% attempted to end their lives. Additionally, in 2014, a study by the US Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention found half of youths with identifiable disorders did not receive appropriate services. It also showed that approximately 59% of incarcerated kids with mood and anxiety disorders were not receiving treatment.

The services offered to incarcerated youth vary across states and by community. Mental health services can range from being non-existent to fairly progressive. However, even when treatment services are offered, they may be inadequate to address underlying mental health issues. In a recent article, Stephanie Covington, co-director of the Institute for Relational Development and the Center for Gender and Justice in La Jolla, California, commented that adolescent “Treatment programs that are offered often fail to address the root causes of behavior.”
Many mental health disorders may manifest through violence or criminal activity. Often, what is needed is a mental health response rather than one from law enforcement. Unfortunately, when a youth’s mental health condition presents this way, the reaction is frequently punitive rather than therapeutic.

Some states, such as Oregon, reportedly have more progressive mental health policies that appear to influence corrections practices. Additionally, in California, the state has more than 40 mental health courts; 11 are for youth offenders. The adolescent mental health courts focus on providing access to treatment, consistent and intensive supervision, and academic and family support. California also has specialized adolescent drug courts.
Often, a youth's criminal justice activity is a symptom of their underlying condition and life circumstances. Unfortunately, the national response to addressing the mental health needs of incarcerated youth is far from consistent. However, allowing kids to go untreated and taking a punitive approach is more likely to worsen their mental health and increase recidivism. By the time they become adults, they may have little to no chance of avoiding a cycle of incarceration and untreated mental illness. Preventative and diversion programs that offer comprehensive mental health and social services rather than imprisonment seem to be a far better alternative for kids and their communities.

If you or a loved one has a mental disability and has been arrested or convicted of a crime, you need an experienced criminal defense attorney on your side. Elizabeth Kelley specializes in representing individuals with mental disabilities. To schedule a consultation, contact us or call (509) 991-7058.
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Representing People with Mental Disabilities: A Criminal Defense Lawyer's Best Practice Manual

Published by the American Bar Association. Topics include:

  • Competency
  • Sanity
  • Malingering
  • Neuroscience
  • Jail and Prison Conditions
Representing People with Autism Spectrum Disorder: A Practical Guide for Criminal Defense Lawyers

Published by the American Bar Association. Topics include:

  • Co-Occurring Disorders
  • Testing
  • Competency
  • Risk of Violence
  • Mitigation
Suicide and its Impact on the Criminal Justice System

Published by the American Bar Association. Topics include:

  • Co-Occurring Disorders
  • Testing
  • Competency
  • Risk of Violence
  • Mitigation.
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