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August 10, 2009

"Mentally Ill Offenders Strain Juvenile System"

The title of this post is the headline of this article in this morning's New York Times, which provides still more evidence that crime and criminal offenders often are a reflection of public health problems.  Here is a snippet:

As cash-starved states slash mental health programs in communities and schools, they are increasingly relying on the juvenile corrections system to handle a generation of young offenders with psychiatric disorders. About two-thirds of the nation’s juvenile inmates — who numbered 92,854 in 2006, down from 107,000 in 1999 — have at least one mental illness, according to surveys of youth prisons, and are more in need of therapy than punishment.

“We’re seeing more and more mentally ill kids who couldn’t find community programs that were intensive enough to treat them,” said Joseph Penn, a child psychiatrist at the Texas Youth Commission. “Jails and juvenile justice facilities are the new asylums.”

At least 32 states cut their community mental health programs by an average of 5 percent this year and plan to double those budget reductions by 2010, according to a recent survey of state mental health offices.

Juvenile prisons have been the caretaker of last resort for troubled children since the 1980s, but mental health experts say the system is in crisis, facing a soaring number of inmates reliant on multiple — and powerful — psychotropic drugs and a shortage of therapists.

In California’s state system, one of the most violent and poorly managed juvenile systems in the country, according to federal investigators, three dozen youth offenders seriously injured themselves or attempted suicide in the last year — a sign, state juvenile justice experts say, of neglect and poor safety protocols.

In Ohio, where Gov. Ted Strickland, a former prison psychologist, approved a 34 percent reduction in community-based mental health services to reduce a budget deficit, Thomas J. Stickrath, the director of the Department of Youth Services, said continuing cuts would swell his youth offender population. “I’m hearing from a lot of judges saying, ‘I’m sorry I’m sending so-and-so to you, but at least I know that he’ll get the treatment he can’t get in his community,’ ” Mr. Stickrath said.

But youths are often subjected to neglect and violence in juvenile prisons, and studies show that mental illnesses can become worse there.

August 10, 2009 at 09:54 AM | Permalink

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