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Improving Diversion Policies and Programs for Justice-Involved Youth with Co-occurring Mental and Substance Use Disorders

Published Dec 31, 2013, National Center for Mental Health and Juvenile Justice at Policy Research Associates, Inc. and Technical Assistance Collaborative

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Large numbers of youth come in contact with the juvenile justice system each year. In 2009, the most recent year for which data are available, 1.9 million youth under the age of 18 were arrested.  Estimates indicate that up to 600,000 youth cycle through detention centers annually, with more than 70,000 youth in a juvenile correctional setting or other residential placement on any given day.  Many youth end up in the juvenile justice system for nonviolent or relatively minor offenses.  Too often, a contributing factor to contact with the juvenile justice system is an unmet need for behavioral health treatment and services. Yet, involvement in the justice system reduces the likelihood that youth will have access to community-based programs with demonstrated effectiveness for reducing delinquency, symptoms of mental illness, and substance use.

The prevalence of mental illness and substance use disorders, referred to as behavioral health disorders, among youth involved in the juvenile justice system is staggering (see Summary of the Research for more detail). Evidence suggests that more than half of all youth in contact with the juvenile justice system have a diagnosable mental or substance use disorder. Many experience both. Further complicating matters, some youth actually meet criteria for more than two diagnoses.

The presence of behavioral health disorders in youth creates unique challenges for the juvenile justice system at both the policy and program levels. To achieve positive outcomes for these youth, juvenile justice, behavioral health, and other relevant systems must increase collaboration, continuity of care, and access to integrated, evidence-based, or promising-practice screening and treatment models. Given the needs of these youth, the documented inadequacies of their care in the juvenile justice system, and the growing body of evidence concerning what works and what does not, youth with behavioral health needs should be diverted out of the juvenile justice system to effective, community-based services whenever safe and possible.

To support dissemination of models with demonstrated effectiveness for addressing the needs of youth with behavioral health disorders, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation (Foundation) and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) collaborated on an initiative designed to increase the number of youth diverted out of the juvenile justice system to appropriate community-based programs and services. This project was coordinated by the National Center for Mental Health and Juvenile Justice at Policy Research Associates, Inc., and the Technical Assistance Collaborative, Inc. Key partners who participated in planning and technical assistance activities included Advocates for Youth and Family Behavioral Health Treatment, the Center for Children’s Law and Policy, the Center for Innovative Practices at Begun Center for Violence Prevention, and the National Youth Screening and Assistance Project.

Reform areas: Mental health

Categories: Mental/behavioral health

Uploaded Jan 16, 2014


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