Jeffrey A. Butts is Executive Director of the Research Evaluation Center at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York. Since 1991, he has managed more than $10 million of research and evaluation projects focused on youth justice. Before joining John Jay College, Jeff was a Research Fellow with Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago and before that director of the Program on Youth Justice at the Urban Institute in Washington, DC. He began his career as a drug and alcohol counselor for the juvenile court in Eugene, Oregon.
Mental health is one important issue in a bundle of issues affecting public understanding of juvenile crime and juvenile justice. Others in the same bundle include substance abuse, family violence, head injuries and various forms of trauma. Together, these influence juvenile justice policy and practice in profound ways. They are also easily misunderstood. Psychologist Gail Wasserman and her colleagues at Columbia University published a study in 2010 showing that mental health disorders are found in larger numbers as researchers look more deeply into the justice system.
On March 17, Nate Balis and Tom Woods from the Annie E. Casey Foundation responded to my JJIE opinion column from March 7 in which I cautioned that it was too soon to claim intentional reform as the cause of recent declines in juvenile incarceration. Nate and Tom argue that policy and practice reforms around the country have at least contributed to the decline. They cite specific examples of states where substantive reforms in juvenile justice were followed by marked shifts in juvenile incarceration. Nate and Tom make some valid points, and I’m willing to concede two of them. First, they chide me for writing that “incarceration numbers follow the crime rate,” and they are right to do so.
The youth justice field is in a celebratory mood. Last month, the Annie E. Casey Foundation and the Justice Policy Institute released major reports on the declining rate of juvenile incarceration in the United States. On a per capita basis, juvenile confinement is down more than 40 percent compared with the mid-1990s. In some states, the numbers are even more striking, with declines of 66 percent in Tennessee, 65 percent in Connecticut, and 56 percent in Louisiana. Why is this happening?
Gail Wasserman and her colleagues from the Center for the Promotion of Mental Health in Juvenile Justice at Columbia University published an important new study that was released mid-February in Criminal Justice and Behavior: “Psychiatric Disorder, Comorbidity, and Suicidal Behavior in Juvenile Justice Youth.” It may be the best source of information yet on the prevalence of substance abuse and mental health disorders among youth in the juvenile justice system. We need accurate information. I’ve heard many practitioners around the country make the same mistake, claiming that “70 percent” of the youth in “the system” have diagnosable disorders. As I’ve said before elsewhere, this common mistake usually starts with a misreading of the 2002 study by Linda Teplin at Northwestern University.