Recently proposed legislation aims to extend and expand a federal program
that diverts children with mental illness from the juvenile justice system,
which has seen a massive influx of such young offenders in recent years.
The Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Reauthorization Act of 2009
(S 678), sponsored by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), would authorize increased
funding for training juvenile justice personnel to recognize and refer for
treatment youth offenders with signs of mental illness. The measure also would
provide grants, for the first time, to fund prevention programs to keep
children with psychiatric illness from entering the criminal justice
"A prevention component that targets children and youth at risk is
long overdue," said William Arroyo, M.D., co-chair of the Juvenile
Justice Committee for the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry
(AACAP). "It not only aborts a trajectory of suffering and antisocial
behavior, but it avoids enormous costs incurred by public systems when youth
enter the juvenile justice system. Research supports this strategy."
The measure would authorize $2.1 billion in juvenile justice grants to
states over five years and require any state receiving such funding to develop
plans to provide alternatives—when needed—to detention for youth
offenders, including diversion to treatment for mental health and substance
abuse disorders. Also required would be state plans to reduce the number of
children who are housed in jails and awaiting placement in residential
treatment programs. States would be expected to engage family members in the
design and implementation of prevention and treatment services when a child is
States would have to supply a detailed accounting of how they are ensuring
that juvenile suspects are offered mental health and substance abuse
screening, assessment, referral, and treatment within the state's juvenile
justice system. Those efforts must include use of evidence-based mental health
and substance abuse screening and further assessments if an initial screening
demonstrates a need for further assessment.
"It has become abundantly clear that mental health and drug treatment
are fundamental to making real progress toward keeping juvenile offenders from
reoffending," said Leahy in a statement on the Senate floor. "This
bill takes new and important steps to prioritize and fund mental health and
According to Leahy, the bill's mental illness and substance abuse treatment
provisions are needed because a growing body of research has found that jails
are becoming the nation's largest facilities for people with mental illness.
Mental disorders are up to three times more common among children in the
justice system than in the general population, and 80 percent of people in the
juvenile justice system have substance abuse problems, he said.
The legislation is supported by AACAP due to its emphasis on detection and
treatment of mental illness and addictions as a way to help end the downward
spiral of children with untreated health problems that drop
them—sometimes repeatedly—into the nation's prisons.
Juvenile inmates "have higher rates of mental health diagnoses
including learning disabilities and substance abuse compared with their
peers," said Louis Kraus, M.D., co-chair of AACAP's Juvenile Justice
Committee. "Early education and intervention programs that target
at-risk children and adolescents and work with them before, during, and after
the adjudication process will reduce recidivism."
The legislation to reauthorize the juvenile justice grant program is
expected to advance because it has some bipartisan support and its sponsor is
chair of the committee with primary oversight of this issue. But a repeat of
Republican opposition that developed last year could derail it. In 2008
Republicans objected to an earlier version of the bill because it lacked
measures to tighten management of the 30-year-old juvenile justice grant
program, and it did not address previously identified instances of
unauthorized spending by states of the juvenile grants.
Leahy's staff told Psychiatric News that the latest version of the
bill is fairly similar to last year's measure.
The text of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention
Reauthorization Act of 2009 can be accessed at<http://thomas.loc.gov>
by searching on the bill number, S 678. ▪