NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Are We Criminalizing Mental Illness In The Young?

December 5, 2000

Experts report that growing numbers of young people suffering from mental illness or retardation, or both, are falling into the juvenile justice system. Once there, they are reportedly being shuffled between children's shelters, group homes, psychiatric hospitals and juvenile jails.

  • There are no precise figures, but the Coalition for Juvenile Justice cites estimates that 50 percent to 75 percent of teenagers in the juvenile justice system nationwide are suffering from a diagnosable mental disorder.
  • Perhaps 15 percent to 20 percent of them suffer from a severe mental illness -- such as manic depression or schizophrenia.
  • There are four mental health courts in the nation charged with keeping emotionally disturbed adults out of jail or prison.
  • The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors will soon vote on setting up the first juvenile mental health court in the nation.

Experts say the situation for emotionally troubled teenagers is definitely getting worse, that the numbers involved are startling and that the current system is nothing but a warehouse. In one case, a 16-year-old girl suffering from manic depression and retardation was transferred more than 65 times between various facilities.

In Texas, officials at the State Youth Commission say they have seen an increasing number of young people with mental illness sent to juvenile prisons in the past few years, and some evidence that the level of sickness is also becoming more severe.

Source: Fox Butterfield, "Concern Rising Over Use of Juvenile Prisons to 'Warehouse' the Mentally Ill," New York Times, December 5, 2000.


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