Nearly 70 percent of adolescents from a Chicago detention center charged
with a crime and transferred to adult criminal courts have at least one
Furthermore, teenagers from the detention center sentenced to prison had
more than twice the odds of having a psychiatric disorder as those not
sentenced to a prison term, according to a study published in the September
The findings point to a crisis in the juvenile-justice system, in which a
substantial number of adolescents are remanded to adult courts for trial,
according to Jason Washburn, Ph.D., lead author of the study and a research
assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Northwestern
University's Feinberg School of Medicine.
"Psychiatric treatment needs to be an integral part of any
rehabilitation program for these," Washburn told Psychiatric
Washburn and colleagues, working with the Northwestern Juvenile Project at
Northwestern University, randomly sampled 1,715 youth aged 13 to 18 who were
brought to the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center in Chicago from
November 1995 through June 1998.
According to the report, the minimum age at which a youth can be
transferred to adult criminal court to be tried for an offense is 13. At the
time of data collection, according to Illinois law, youngsters were eligible
to be transferred to adult criminal court for the following offenses:
first-degree murder, aggravated criminal sexual assault, armed robbery,
aggravated vehicular hijacking, unlawful use of a weapon on or near school
property, and delivery of a controlled substance on or near school property or
The sample consisted of 275 juveniles later processed through adult
criminal court and 1,440 processed through juvenile court.
Researchers interviewed the youth within two days of intake using the
Diagnostic Interview Schedule for Children, version 2.3. In addition,
researchers gathered information on arrest charges from the detention
Among the youth processed in adult criminal court, about half (51 percent)
were sentenced to prison. Only 1 percent of those processed in juvenile courts
received a prison sentence.
According to the findings, African-American youth were more than three
times as likely as non-Latino white youth to be transferred to adult court,
and Latino youth were more than twice as likely as their non-Latino white
peers to be tried in adult criminal courts.
Although Washburn and his colleagues found no significant differences in
the prevalence rates of psychiatric disorders between adolescents processed in
juvenile courts and those processed in adult courts, they found that being
sentenced to serve time in prison was associated with a greater prevalence
rate of psychiatric disorders among the young offenders.
Washburn noted that "as we might expect from more serious offenders,
the youth sentenced to prison had greater odds of substance use and disruptive
behavior disorders. What is more concerning, however, is that the transferred
youth sentenced to prison also had significantly greater odds of having
comorbid affective and anxiety disorders."
The study subjects who received prison sentences were, for instance, almost
three times as likely to have a comorbid anxiety and affective disorder as
those who weren't sent to prison.
Washburn said that based on the high prevalence rates of psychiatric
problems in adolescents who have been tried in adult courts, "it is
unlikely that the current therapeutic and rehabilitative resources allocated
to the criminal justice system are adequate to meet these needs."
Limitations of the study include that the sample was gathered in one
location and thus may not be generalizable to national samples of juvenile
offenders. In addition, data regarding psychiatric symptoms were based on the
adolescents' self-reports, which may have resulted in underreporting of
Future studies should examine long-term outcome in juveniles tried in adult
criminal courts, Washburn noted, and how psychiatric disorders may influence
youth's ability to participate in legal proceedings aimed at adults.
Washburn concluded that psychiatric treatment needs to be an integral part
of rehabilitation programs for juvenile offenders. "Prison psychiatrists
are critical resources for these youth, both as psychiatric practitioners and
for facilitating their overall rehabilitation," he said.
An abstract of "Psychiatric Disorders Among Detained Youths: A
Comparison of Youths Processed in Juvenile Court and Adult Criminal
Court" is posted at<http://psychservices.psychiatryonline.org/cgi/content/abstract/59/9/965>.▪