Cash-Strapped Mental Health Programs Turn to Juvenile Jails for Help

States nationwide are cutting spending on mental health this year, and deeper cuts are on the way for 2010. As a result, cash-strapped mental health programs are relying on juvenile jails to deal with troubled youth. 

The New York Times reported:

"As cash-starved states slash mental health programs in communities and schools, they are increasingly relying on the juvenile corrections system to handle a generation of young offenders with psychiatric disorders. About two-thirds of the nation's juvenile inmates -- who numbered 92,854 in 2006, down from 107,000 in 1999 -- have at least one mental illness, according to surveys of youth prisons, and are more in need of therapy than punishment.

" 'We're seeing more and more mentally ill kids who couldn't find community programs that were intensive enough to treat them,' said Joseph Penn, a child psychiatrist at the Texas Youth Commission. 'Jails and juvenile justice facilities are the new asylums.'

"At least 32 states cut their community mental health programs by an average of 5 percent this year and plan to double those budget reductions by 2010, according to a recent survey of state mental health offices [PDF].

"Juvenile prisons have been the caretaker of last resort for troubled children since the 1980s, but mental health experts say the system is in crisis, facing a soaring number of inmates reliant on multiple -- and powerful -- psychotropic drugs and a shortage [PDF] of therapists."

Corrections Today, an American Correctional Association publication, provided additional background:

"Research suggests that up to 70 percent of the estimated daily average of more than 90,000 adjudicated youths cycling through local and state adult and juvenile justice placements or facilities have a mental health disorder (e.g., conduct disorder, anxiety and depression) with a risk of suicide four times higher than the general juvenile population. More than half have histories of exposure to violence, neglect, abuse and trauma. It is estimated that up to 75 percent of young offenders have a substance abuse disorder, and as many as 20 percent of this group also suffer from a mental health disorder serious enough to impair their daily functioning.

"The juvenile justice system is facing the trend experienced by the adult criminal justice system -- the criminalization of mental illness. Youth facilities have become substitute mental health 'hospitals,' while also facing the pressure of economic constraints, difficulties recruiting and retaining qualified staff, and the possible shift in focus from a treatment and rehabilitation model to one of custody and control. Legally, these facilities are obligated to provide adequate medical and mental health services to the offenders in their care."

Additional resources

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    Al Tompkins

    Al Tompkins is The Poynter Institute’s senior faculty for broadcasting and online. He has taught thousands of journalists, journalism students and educators in newsrooms around the world.


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