The Juvenile Justice System: Mental Health, Education & Human Rights

Criminal Handcuffed by the Police

Written by Root & Rebound’s Fall Development & Communications Intern, Keerthi Sundaramurthy, this blog describes the inadequacies and shortcomings of our juvenile justice system, and highlights reform and real progress is being made. We invite you to read and comment on this pressing topic!

There are over a million cases handled by juvenile courts every year. At any given point during the year, there are at least 70,000 incarcerated juveniles in detention. Every year, the US spends around 21 billion dollars on juvenile incarceration. 

The juvenile justice system needs reform. From inadequate educational services to lack of mental health support, this system needs to work on the accessibility of these human rights. This system not only does not work to rehabilitate the incarcerated, but may also worsen the situation of crime in society by increasing recidivism. 

Mental Health

Those in the juvenile justice system experience mental health disorders three times as much as the general youth population. 93% of the youth have been affected by exposure to adverse conditions, including domestic violence, sexual assault, and physical abuse.  

Programs have been started to implement change. One such program is Models for Change: Systems Reform in Juvenile Justice, a multi-state initiative which has worked to change policies in juvenile systems, to better suit the needs of youth, and make the system more fair, effective, rational and developmentally appropriate. Other programs include Collaborative for Change, which is a multi-dimensional Resource Center that shares information on mental health reforms and provides assistance for those in the juvenile justice system, and Youth Law Center, which is a nonprofit which works to protect children in this system from abuse. Another nonprofit, the Fortune Society, works to provide alternatives to incarceration, and support reentry. The combined efforts of these organizations provide support and aid for those in the juvenile justice system.

To read more about mental health and its intersection with juvenile justice, see the Better Solutions for Youth with Mental Health Needs in the Juvenile Justice System report. 

To see a list of nonprofits working on these issues, see this list made by Philanthropedia.  

Investment in correctional education

Juvenile incarceration decreases the chances of high school graduation by 13-39% and increases the chance of incarceration as an adult by 23-41%. Even with shorter incarceration durations, the impact can be significant– incarcerated juveniles are unlikely to resume schooling. They also are more likely to develop behavioral/emotional disorders. It is predicted that less than 15% of the kids in the juvenile justice system will graduate from high school, and only 1% will go on to college. The juvenile incarceration system neither prevents future crime, nor improves the state of human capital.

It is estimated that for every dollar put towards correctional education, we save $5 in the next three years by reducing recidivism. However, participation in educational or vocational programs in prison decreased juvenile offenders’ probability of returning to prison by 43%. The National Academy of Sciences estimates that better education in juvenile detention could save communities between $2 million and $3 million for each student, over the next ten years.

As seen by this evidence, correctional education can clearly be a means of breaking out of the juvenile incarceration-to-adult incarceration system that we see so much. 


Reform is slowly making its way! States are learning the impact of the juvenile justice-culture, and are shifting towards “trauma-based” models, which include training guards to be able to understand disturbed kids better. They are also moving kids from detention into the likes of community-based programs. This has posed many challenges for the authority in disciplining kids, but progress is being made.

An Illinois Senate bill, HB 2401, involves the Redeploy program, which provides services including mental health counseling, to juvenile offenders. The HB 2401 bill allows communities to focus the Redeploy program into smaller regions, which would lead to more effective reform.  

For more information about bills to follow, see the Juvenile Justice Bills Tracking Database:

Next Steps

“Most important, however, the states need to redefine the mission of their juvenile justice systems. That means refocusing from warehousing and punishing juveniles to a much more positive mission: educating troubled youths who typically suffer from an array of psychological and educational challenges.”

Louisiana and Connecticut are great examples of states leading in positive changes in the juvenile justice system. Louisiana has recently increased the use of research-based behavioral health, and other assessment tools. It also uses The Structured Assessment of Violence Risk in Youth (SAVRY) and have increased the use of evidence based practices, including Functional Family Therapy teams. The access to the services has increased by more than 50% for the youth, and public safety has been improved.

Connecticut has created the School Based Diversion Initiative (SBDI), which is a program in which schools report incidents involving youth with mental health needs to, instead of contacting the police. This has had positive results in schools, and has decreased arrests, suspensions, and expulsions from participating schools.

To read more about reform, see the New York Times, The Next Juvenile Justice Reform article:

To read more about the inadequacy of education provided in the juvenile justice system, see the Huffington Post, The Education Being Provided To This Group Of Students Is Absolutely ‘Inadequate,’ Says Study article :

To read more about the juvenile justice system and incarceration rates, see the Juvenile Justice blog post “Telling the Whole Truth about Juvenile Incarceration Rates”:

Steps to take: 

Locking up our youth does not make our communities a safer place. Alternatives to incarceration for youth can reduce recidivism by up to 22 percent. Evidence based programs, correctional facilities, higher education, mental health support, intervention programs, and more focus on treatment can have a huge impact on the youth, the community, and on the country as a whole. We need to invest in and believe in reform, and not just prison buildings, to grow out of unsafe communities and the rashly ineffective juvenile justice system.

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