Programs which address behavioral health, addiction and trauma for juveniles caught up in the justice system yield positive reform results that surpass traditional methods of incarceration, according to a new Case Western Reserve University study.
“The majority of justice-involved youth have a history of mental health and/or substance-use issues, and have experienced a great deal of trauma,” said Jeff Kretschmar, co-author of the study and the research associate professor at the university’s Begun Center for Violence Prevention Research and Education.
“However,” Kretschmar continued, “local jurisdictions are often ill-equipped to accurately assess youth for behavioral health problems and provide appropriate treatment.”
In the Ohio study, 5,300 youth aged 10 through 17 were enrolled in the Ohio Behavioral Health Juvenile Justice Initiative (BHJJ) program, many of them carrying baggage of unbelievable proportions. Twenty-one percent of the youth reported that someone close to them had been murdered in the past year, and nearly half of the boys and over a quarter of the girls in the program reported both substance abuse and mental health disorders.
The researchers began tracking the youths’ progress in 2006, and found that from 2017 through 2019, 81 percent of the participants successfully completed the state’s juvenile diversion program — with data indicating that 79 percent of participants reduced their contact with police while in treatment.
Moreover, young people who completed the program reported a significant decrease in trauma symptoms and significant improvement in positive functioning.
In other words, the authors wrote, these findings suggest youth offenders greatly benefit from community-based diversion programs outside of incarceration facilities as they’re able to heal, address mental health and substance use issues instead of being locked up behind bars.
While these results are not only promising on a behavioral side, the authors added that they yield cost-savings as well.
For the entire program, BHJJ invested about $5,200 per child — compared with the $196,000 spent per child who enters an Ohio state-run detention facility.
For further context, The Imprint and The Citizen report that escalating expenses at state-operated detention facilities in New York State have reached an annual average of nearly $900,000 per youth.
Once informed of these costs, some legislators say they’re angry and upset over the high price tag, and are hoping to redirect the money to different programs and services as alternatives to incarceration.
In terms of recidivism and criminality, the authors write that since 2015, only 3.8 percent of youth enrolled in the BHJJ program were committed to state-run detention facilities.
The research results from the Ohio Case Western Reserve University come as support for juvenile justice alternatives to jail is gaining headway in newly passed legislation across America.
On Monday, Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer signed into law a bipartisan criminal justice reform package that highlights juvenile justice change, including bills that create jail alternatives while giving juveniles caught up in the system access the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and licensed professionals for mental health and addiction, an NBC affiliate reports.
On Tuesday, to open North Dakota’s first day of the judiciary session, Chief Justice Jon Jenson outlined a slate of new legislative priorities, mainly including juvenile justice topics, the Grand Forks Herald reports.
“Over the past biennium, the lack of treatment options has become not only apparent but substantially deficit,” Jenson said.
While asking legislators to consider making a request to the state executive branch for additional funding for treatment options, Jenson stressed that “the court cannot function as intended without adequate placement options.”
North Dakota State Senator Janne Myrdal , a Republican, agreed, saying with the youth crime trending upwards, the state needs “more restoration, not incarceration.”
As December came to a close, Delaware filed two criminal justice reform bills as part of a package that ended the practice of housing youth criminals in the same facility as the adult population. Despite being separated from the adults, this essentially meant the youth were kept in solitary confinement, the Delaware State News reports.
“Teenagers and young people, even those who commit crimes, should not be forced into a criminal justice system that is designed for adults,” Rep. Stephanie T. Bolden, a Wilmington Democrat, said in a statement as quoted by the Delaware State News.
“When we treat minors like adults in the justice system, the outcomes are not only bad for them, they’re worse for society at large,” Bolden concluded.
Overall, the authors of the latest research out of Ohio stress that youth offenders are not lost or incapable of reform — instead, they can be rehabilitated and brought back into society following community-based diversion programs.
The full study can be accessed here.
Andrea Cipriano is a TCR staff writer.