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Study: Prevalence of Behavioral Health Issues Varies Widely in Juvenile Justice


How many youth in the juvenile justice system have mental health or alcohol and drug disorders?

New research on nearly 10,000 youth in 18 states and over 50 jurisdictions suggests that the answer can vary a lot, depending on what part of the juvenile justice system you’re talking about.

Jeffrey Butts, Ph.D., who directs the Research Evaluation Center at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, drove this point home in a Feb. 16 post for the Reclaiming Futures blog, which I edit. Professionals often misinterpret past research, he wrote, and mistakenly cite a statistic that 70 percent of youth in the juvenile justice system have “diagnosable disorders.”

In fact, he said, the real picture is more nuanced: mental health and alcohol and drug issues are “not the main reasons youth come into contact with the justice system, but both problems increase in prevalence as youth are processed more deeply into the system.”

To make his point, he drew on work published in December 2010 by Gail Wasserman, a professor at Columbia University and director of the Center for the Promotion of Mental Health in Juvenile Justice, and her colleagues.

The drawback to previous research on the topic, Butts said, was that it usually sampled youth at only one part of the justice system, such as detention. In contrast, Wasserman and her colleagues studied youth at different points in the juvenile justice system — at intake, in detention, and in secure placements after they’d been adjudicated — in an effort to obtain what the study abstract described as “generalizable estimates of psychiatric disorder and suicidality among justice system youth.”

In addition to finding that those estimates varied by where youth were in the system, Wasserman’s team also found that they varied by ethnicity, gender, and race. American Indian youth, for example, were twice as likely as white youth to have an alcohol and drug disorder. Furthermore, “[w]hite youth, repeat offenders, and those with further justice system penetration reported higher rates of most disorders,” and girls had significantly higher rates of anxiety, depression, and reported suicide attempts when compared with boys.

The study, “Psychiatric Disorder, Comorbidity, and Suicidal Behavior in Juvenile Justice Youth,” appeared in the December 2010 issue of Criminal Justice and Behavior.


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