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Legal News
Youth Sentenced to Adult Prisons Have High Mental Illness Rates
Psychiatric News
Volume 43 Number 18 page 16-29

Nearly 70 percent of adolescents from a Chicago detention center charged with a crime and transferred to adult criminal courts have at least one psychiatric disorder.

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 Psychiatric Services.

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 News.

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 public housing.

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 center.

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 symptoms.

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>.

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