It is true that a lot of our young people are mentally ill and probably needed help at a much earlier age. I see a lot of parents who will not get the proper treatment for their children because they are in denial of the fact that their children could be diagnosed mentally ill. I know how hard it is to grasp and admit that your loved one can be mentally ill, but these young children need help early so that they don't "self medicate" and find them selves in prison in their early adulthood. Some of them are there because their parents stick their heads in the sand when a medical professional tells them their child has a mental illness and hope they will just "grow out of it". I have had parents tell me that, then several years later I hear that the child is now in juvie hall and doing in-appropriate things. We need to help these young people, and we need parents to do a better job.
The majority of juvenile offenders transferred to adult criminal courts have one or more psychiatric disorders--and they often go untreated, found a Northwestern study.
The Psycho-Legal Department at the Feinberg School of Medicine, which conducts a series of studies called the Northwestern Juvenile Project, also found that a disproportionate number of youths tried in adult courts were minorities.
Jason Washburn, who headed the study, said the juvenile system is flawed, and trying youth offenders as adults may cause more problems than it solves.
“It’s clear to see that the kids who are referred to adult courts and sent to prison end up doing much worse [mentally],” he said. “It doesn’t have any positive rehabilitation effect and it may actually be doing them some damage.”
Illinois law states the juvenile court has jurisdiction over all youths under the age of 16 unless they are transferred to adult criminal court.
There are five felony offenses for which children over the age of 13 are automatically tried in adult criminal court:
• First-degree murder
• Aggravated criminal sexual assault
• Aggravated battery with a firearm
• Armed robbery
• Aggravated vehicular hijacking committed with a firearm
Washburn said that perhaps the most disconcerting finding is the strong link between youths being tried in adult courts and the prevalence of mental illness. About 68 percent of these youths had at least one psychiatric disorder and 43 percent had two or more.
These rates have heightened the need for psychiatric care at juvenile facilities in order to help these youths as they get older and reduce their odds of repeating criminal behavior.
Tiffany Masson, a professor at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology, who researches juvenile detention centers, said adequate mental health treatment has been a problem for the Cook County juvenile justice system for a long time.
“They have had minimal mental health treatment for juvenile offenders,” she said. “They may be getting some individual therapy, but it’s not the evidence-based therapy that they need for recovery.”
Masson said this lack of treatment is a huge concern because it may cause more problems in the future.
“The juveniles with the risk factors for delinquency, if they go unaddressed, that can lead them on a pathway to behavioral issues as adults,” she said.
Washburn said clinicians could help lower the amount of at-risk youths sent to adult criminal court by “determining how psychological factors should be mitigated and which youths may respond best to alternative sentencing.” Then, he said, it is up to the correctional system to provide more mental health care for youths who are in prisons.
“Thus far, kids in detention centers who had serious mental problems like depression, mania and psychosis have been very unlikely to get any attention for their needs,” he said.
Though there is still plenty of room for improvement, Masson said there have been significant upgrades in mental health coverage at the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center over the past few years. She attributes much of that change to the increase in media coverage of the center.
“Because of the recent media attention, there’s been quite an effort to reform the center,” she said. “They’re starting to do discussion groups and apply more cognitive-behavioral therapy these days, after only doing screenings in the past.”
In addition to the large percentage of juveniles needing mental health care, the study also found that males, African-Americans and Hispanics are at greater odds of being tried in adult criminal courts than females and non-Hispanic whites.
“When factors like the type of crime are held consistent, African-Americans and Hispanics are still being sent to adult trials at a much higher rate,” Washburn said.
Washburn also thinks recent changes have improved juvenile rights in Illinois. Until 2008, juveniles arrested for selling drugs within 1,000 feet of a school or public housing were automatic sent to adult courts.
He said this law had lead to the disproportionate number of minorities being tried in higher courts, but now that it has changed, the situation should improve in the future.
“Before the drug law was changed, Illinois’s laws were probably pretty stringent compared to other states,” he said. “Now the laws that are in place are much more fair and aren’t too far off from other states.”