Reforming The Juvenile Justice System: A Focus on Education and Mental Health

Table of Content

The current reformation process of teenagers in the US juvenile justice system is largely aimed toward retributive justice. The system is overly focused on the fact that arrest and incarceration is a punishment as a result of negative behavior. This has also led society to be blindsided about the possible futures of these teens. People, which includes everyone both inside and outside of the system, need to start viewing juvie as a chance for these teens to change and reset the path of their lives, rather than merely a harsh punishment. In order for this to be possible, the system needs to provide the resources needed to create behavioral and proper developmental change. With a lack of resources in the system, those in juvie will not be able to develop and change. This results in increased recidivism because they never actually benefit from their process going through the juvenile justice system. Our modern justice system is not well equipped enough to provide the effective education and mental health treatment to the large numbers of youth who are in great need. In a recent report from the Institute of Medicine and National Research Council, it has been noted that current policies and programs for youth in the system are often fragmented, inadequately coordinated, and not designed for the teens’ specific developmental needs (Zajac 2015). The two major negative future outcomes strongly associated with juvenile arrests and incarceration are unproductive and unhealthy adulthood. This is why the US juvenile justice system needs to be reformed and geared toward restorative justice rather than retributive justice. This means providing the teens with a proper quantity and quality of resources, especially education and mental health care.

Being involved in the prison system causes troubled teenagers and children to feel helpless and hopeless. They struggle to focus on changing their thinking and behavior because they are more focused on surviving. With this kind of unsupportive environment, the teens have no motivation to change or grow. Current policies in the juvenile justice system do not meet the multiple needs of these youth, and at times can even worsen already existing problems within them. Such youth often present barriers to meeting normative developmental milestones, like educational success, stable relationships, and maturation into productive adults. A significant number of young people involved in the juvenile justice system are transition age youth, ranging from 16-25 years of age. Transition age youth are at high risk of not successfully transitioning into independent adulthood. In addition to this, the juvenile system puts full responsibility on the youth for their actions, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but they still should take into account that teens are still learning bodies and are often not fully aware of the extent of their actions. Public figure Newt Gingrich alongside conservative commentator Pat Nolan have stated, “We don’t let young people drink until they are 21, and they can’t sign contracts, vote or serve on juries until they are 18. But there is one area in which we ignore teens’ youth and impulsiveness: our criminal laws,” (Deruy, 2015). Developmentally appropriate policies and interventions need to be made, and factors that differentiate this age group from adults need to be taken into account.

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There are people who believe that young criminals or troubled teenagers can not be changed because they were born violent or they are already too far gone to teach. However, this has been proved by scientists to not be true. Even though this group can be extremely difficult to work with and connect to, it must be recognized that children are different from adults. What separates them is that their brains are not yet fully developed, so they do not possess the impulse control or judgment skills that adults are capable of. In 2005, the Supreme Court banned death penalty for juvenile offenders because people under 18 are immature, irresponsible, susceptible to peer pressure, and often capable of change (Scott 2012). There is an extremely high prevalence of youth involved in the juvenile justice system who deal with educational and mental health issues. This gives the opportunity for providers and policymakers involved in the systems to impact large numbers of extremely vulnerable youth.

Education is an absolute essential to the development of youth, and a key factor to creating change in troubled youth involved in the justice system. Educational engagement improves academic performance and reduces disciplinary referrals and drop out. Many adolescents involved in the system are in need of numerous behavioral health services and often have long histories of multiple problems including substance use, delinquency and criminal behavior, family relationship difficulties, and education and learning problems. Successful schooling has been identified as a major determining factor in ceasing criminality and antisocial behavior. Education is unequivocally the most powerful tool in recidivism reduction, rehabilitation of juvenile delinquent individuals, and realization of delinquent juveniles into socially productive, healthy, and happy adults. Studies have shown that adolescents with these profiles may benefit from early intervention to prevent their progression to more serious levels of delinquency and consequent legal system involvement (Dauber & Hogue 2011). However, traditional education is more so than not extremely difficult to implement in the juvenile system and actually be effective. The negative experiences that many of the youth have with standard types of classroom education and environments plays a role in their becoming frustrated with learning by establishing and reinforcing a sense of failure in the classroom, dropping out of school, and a culmination of other delinquent behavior (Macomber 2010). This is exactly why educational programs must be flexible to meet the specific needs of the group. Utilization of multiple modes and modalities of learning, as well as application of creative and effective models of teaching will help to take the teens away from traditional teaching settings. It is important that lessons are oriented toward real-life situations and integrate various academic skills because if not, they will not see the point in learning. Why learn if it won’t help them? They need to be made aware of how the education will help them catch up in society, and hopefully be inspired so that they are willing, maybe even eager, to learn. Positive reinforcements in response to academic achievement, such as diplomas and certificates, are also extremely helpful in increasing aspiration to learn.

The effects and results of education also bleed into various mental health benefits, which is very helpful because mental health is another huge issue regarding youth in the juvenile justice system. A mass majority of teens in the system have some kind of mental health issue. In fact, many of them with mental health diagnoses actually have multiple psychosocial problems. There are many possible barriers to mental health care including insufficient healthcare coverage, inability to navigate multiple systems, and even lack of service providers in their local communities. Unfortunately, little is known about the effectiveness of evidence-based mental health treatments in justice settings, and such treatments are rarely available to justice-involved youth (Zajac, 2015). In addition to that, for the youth with multiple psychosocial problems, evidence-based treatments that are designed for single disorders are not sufficient enough to help them recover. This fact within itself is a huge issue and should demand a call to action for providers and policymakers to reform the juvenile justice system. The current system is extremely lacking and refuses to address the severity of this issue. Mental health services are a necessity to this extremely complex population of youth. It is an essential resource in the process of their development and reformation, and the services must be provided to them.

Proof exists that teens coming out of the prison system have the possibility of becoming productive members of society. One case in which this is proven is Chris Wilson and his life after being released. Wilson, who murdered a man at age 17, was released as a result of favorable resentencing hearings. He graduated from college, learned to speak multiple languages, and is now employed and works to connect unemployed Baltimore residents with jobs (Deruy 2015). Rehabilitation is more possible when the teens are put in an environment that is conducive to education. This way they are able to gain insight to their behavior and thinking, and produce a positive transformation. Providers and policymakers have the chance to achieve this by implementing effective programming. There are different types of effective programming, however all play important parts in the reformation process. In general, service systems need to be accurate and efficient in identifying and referring youth who come for behavioral health services, integrated across multiple systems, and well versed in the specific needs of this complex group.

Multisystemic Therapy (MST), for instance, is an example of a type of effective programming. MST is a well-established, intensive, community-based treatment for delinquent behavior among adolescents who are involved in juvenile justice (Zajac 2015). MST specializes in evidence-based mental health treatments, and psychiatric support for medication monitoring. The program is adapted specifically for transition age youth with serious mental health conditions, and the therapists target concerns that are specific to transition age youth. This kind of treatment allowed them to better develop higher-level communication skills such as communication, cooperation, problem solving, conflict resolution, and integration of social skills. A pilot study of MST actually found that the treatment reduced recidivism, mental health symptoms, and antisocialness. Additionally, this progress will be greatly beneficial to them if they are released from the justice system and allowed to reenter the community because they can apply these skills that they have developed through the program into real life situations.

Effective coordination of various systems is another essential type of effective programming that is the key to overcoming barriers to services. Oftentimes, incarcerated youth are involved with a variety of systems, such as education and mental health systems, that they must navigate. If there is poor communication across all of these agencies, goal setting and interventions can be at odds with one another, and it is extremely confusing for the teen. Having to interact with multiple providers can already be overwhelming. Adding a lack of seamless interplay between the systems makes the situation even worse. This is why interagency collaboration is so important to this specific age group and setting. Project Connect, a program aimed to link juvenile probationers with mental health and substance use services, is a good example of an interagency collaboration effort. The program has features including cooperative agreements between probation and mental health, facilitated mental health referrals, and even training for probation officers (Zajac, 2015). The integrated care program effectively increased access to mental health services, delivering essential services to this complex population of troubled youth.

Through studies and observed trends, we can conclude that with the right quantity and quality of education and mental health programs offered in the system, recidivism rates will decrease in juvenile justice systems. Substantial changes need to be made in the system in order to ensure successful transitions of these troubled youth into adulthood. It is true that there are still many challenges that need to be addressed and some that can not be directly solved by changing the system, such as the lack of involvement from family members in the reformation process. However, that is why it is even more important for the youth to be provided with adequate resources that will allow them to get out of hopelessness and the mindset that they have fallen behind peers of their age in the community. For many of these youth, their time in the juvenile justice system may be their last and only opportunity to benefit from formalized education. The community and judicial system need to understand this, and change their views on the system as an aim toward restorative justice. Education and mental health services need to be treated as the most important factor in the rehabilitation of this group, rather than just another resource in the system. Reforming the juvenile justice system to have a strong foundation of quality education and mental health is just the first step.

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Reforming The Juvenile Justice System: A Focus on Education and Mental Health. (2022, Feb 11). Retrieved from

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