Alternatives for Justice-Involved Youth with Mental Health Needs Finally Start to Appear


Erin Espinosa CroppedLast week I stood in my swivel-based office chair attempting to hang a picture. It had been bothering me all week and surely using this approach would be successful and quick.

Just as I stretched as far as I could and began to loop the latch on the back of the frame to the nail, the chair I was standing on shot out from under me. Sprawled in the middle of my office with every part of my body in pain, I began to contemplate my ability for complex decision-making.

Here I am, with a couple advanced degrees, and I virtually knocked myself out hanging a picture. Surely I know better, so I should have chosen a ladder or at least a stable chair. Either one would have increased my level of success and decreased my level of pain.

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With that image in mind, I couldn’t help but think about the concept of balancing care and control in the juvenile justice system. Often the tool of choice in juvenile justice is the hammer — a tool that is driven with power and accountability, monitoring compliance and wielding authority.

Although the hammer is useful for its intended purpose, it doesn’t work very well in circumstances where other tools are a better fit. Just as you wouldn’t use a screwdriver to hammer in a nail, a hammer wouldn’t tighten a screw.

For juvenile justice, the system often overpromises the versatility of the hammer, ignoring the other tools in the box needed to build bridges for youth, families and communities. In doing so our probation officers are often underequipped to prevent youth from becoming funneled deeper into the system, especially youth with untreated or undiagnosed mental health needs.

Most estimates of prevalence range from 50 to 75 percent, with approximately 20 to 25 percent of youths having a serious emotional disorder. When compared to the estimates among the general population, 9 to 20 percent of youth indicating a mental health need, it is obvious youth with mental health challenges are disproportionately represented within the juvenile justice system.

In fact, in 2004, the U.S. House of Representatives found two-thirds of juvenile detention facilities across the country reported holding youth in detention not because of the seriousness of their offenses but because they were awaiting mental health care.

These youth enter a justice system that is ill-equipped to respond to and support the complex and multisystemic issues facing them. Youth with mental health challenges present symptoms of their problems in multiple settings, including the school, community and home.

Subsequently, they pose a challenge to the traditional model of supervision. It’s no surprise that officers who supervise justice-involved youth with mental health challenges identify the most daunting issue regarding successful supervision as accessing and coordinating social services.

[Related: The Importance of Treating for Trauma in Juvenile Justice-Involved Youth]

When unsuccessful under supervision, youth will often be charged with a violation of probation and placed in out-of-home settings. This is especially true for youth who are court-ordered to treatment or other services and supports.

Recidivism studies indicate the rates of rearrest for juvenile offenders who have returned from residential treatment and/or juvenile correctional settings range from 40 percent and 65 percent to as high as 85 percent. These findings suggest that when justice-involved youth return to the community from placement, including placements with mental health treatment, there is a very high likelihood that they will cycle back through the system or become engaged in the adult criminal justice system.

Fortunately, states across the country are beginning to look at effective alternatives and diversion models from the juvenile justice system for youth with mental health needs. In Texas, diversion from the system took shape as the Front-End Diversion Initiative (FEDI), a preadjudicatory model that focuses on the use of specialized juvenile probation officers (SJPOs) — essentially probation officers who also take on the role of a case manager.

With specialized supervision, exclusive caseloads facilitate the linking of youth with mental health needs to appropriate services, improve their level of functioning and reduce the number of noncompliance revocations of probation. These officers are extensively trained in adolescent mental health, crisis intervention and family involvement, and serve as a broker between youth and community resources and supports. While working toward supervision goals, specialized supervision also works on treatment goals.

Preliminary data suggest that by rethinking the model of traditional probation, youth were significantly less likely to be adjudicated and more likely to receive needed mental health supports. Youth who had specialized supervision were also more likely to access community services such as individual therapy, family counseling and other community resources than those under traditional supervision. However, despite the data, many states, including Texas, do not implement statewide policies that encourage the adoption of this more successful approach.

When we look at the data, it is clear that the specialized supervision model is promising. In any given year more than 1 million juveniles are arrested across the country. Probation departments initially see most of those youth, and more than half of their cases receive court-ordered supervision.

If you only have a hammer, you see every problem as a nail. Given the disproportionately high number of juveniles who enter the system with an unmet mental health need, states and local jurisdictions must change the tools they make available to supervising juvenile probation officers.

Rethinking probation will require more than just buy-in from any one department or county. Rather, systemic change through state-level policies has more potential to effectively replace the hammer of traditional probation with specialized supervision, linking youth to effective services and supports to reduce recidivism and promote better long-term outcomes.

Erin Espinosa, Ph.D., is a research associate at the Texas Institute for Excellence in Mental Health in the School of Social Work at The University of Texas at Austin. Reach her at

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