Gaps in Mental Illness Checks Swallow Juvenile Victims

The family of 19-year-old Ashley Smith says guards watched and did nothing as the young woman strangled herself to death in an Ontario prison cell. Smith spent her teen years in and out of juvenile custody and, once in the adult system, had her mental illness answered by physical abuse, her family alleges in a legal battle to find out more about their daughter’s death. For youth incarcerated in the United States, the mental care they get — or don’t — varies. “In some places, all of this is really done quite well,” said Preston Elrod, a professor in the Department of Criminal Justice at Eastern Kentucky University and a juvenile justice specialist. “But in other places, none of it is done well.”

About 70 percent of young people who come into an institution have a diagnosable mental health disorder or symptoms of one, according to Gina Vincent, a psychiatry professor from the University of Massachusetts Medical School, in a 2012 report about screening and assessment in juvenile justice systems.

Rules vary by state, though in many places, children will not stay in the juvenile detention system, receiving what juvenile-tailored services exist, as long as Smith did: her 18th birthday.

Judge Steve Teske On The Road Less Traveled to Make Good Law for Kids

“What begins with anger ends with shame.”

Benjamin Franklin

I was asked this past week to visit the North Carolina General Assembly and speak to legislators about effective juvenile justice practices — what works and what doesn’t work.  Like Georgia and most states, North Carolina too was hit hard by the economy and is making hard decisions to cut programs — the state is 3.6 billion in the hole. The irony of budgeting in a fiscal crisis is that it forces policymakers to scrutinize the way things have always been done. When you have to cut, the question is what to cut and hopefully the less effective programs are cut and replaced by more effective and cost efficient alternatives. Our discussions in North Carolina focused on what works and what doesn’t work — and typically what works is more cost effective. What doesn’t work is less effective and more expensive to the taxpayer –incarceration of kids in most circumstances is ineffective.