Strategies to Divert Adolescents with Behavioral Health Needs from the Juvenile Justice System

Policymakers in Wisconsin and around the country are reassessing their juvenile justice systems to better meet multiple goals: fiscal responsibility, public safety, holding youth appropriately accountable, and improved outcomes for youth and their families. In Wisconsin, nearly 40,000 youth under age 18 were arrested or taken into custody in 2017. National studies have found that 50% to 70% of adolescents involved in the juvenile justice system have a mental health condition—a rate at least two to three times higher than the general adolescent population—and 60% of those have a co-occurring substance use disorder.

The research on adolescent development, as well as the high financial and societal costs of incarcerating youth, have led to a growing interest in diverting low-risk adolescents with behavioral health needs (e.g., mental health conditions, substance use disorders, conditions related to traumatic experiences) at the front end of the justice system. Adolescents are instead connected as soon as possible with community-based services, health care providers, and family-based treatment. As a result, they are less likely to experience negative outcomes including academic failure, unemployment, serious health conditions, and future justice system involvement.

The speakers at this seminar discussed the latest research on adolescent development and the relationship between behavioral health problems and involvement in crime. They also discussed several evidence-informed approaches schools and communities are implementing to keep youth with behavioral health needs out of the juvenile justice system. There are several key aspects of these approaches, including the use of evidence-based screening protocols; training of school, law enforcement, and court system personnel; effective matching of youth with appropriate resources based on their needs; strong family engagement; and cross-system collaboration that leads to robust community services.

Seminar materials available upon request