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Juvenile Justice - Issues

The Connection between Juvenile Justice and Disabilities

The rates of emotional, behavioral, learning and developmental disabilities are much higher in juvenile offenders than their incidence in the rest of the population. It is estimated that between 60 to 75 percent of the youth in the juvenile justice system have one or more diagnosable disabilities. These can include emotional and behavioral disorders, learning disabilities, and developmental disabilities. The most common diagnoses include Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder, (ADHD), Learning Disabilities (LD), Depression, Developmental Disabilities (DD), Conduct Disorder, Anxiety Disorders and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and substance abuse.

Most youth with disabilities will not become involved in delinquent or criminal behavior. The risk factors for delinquency and criminal behavior are complex and interconnected, and can include lack of attachment to school, chronic school failure, criminal behavior in the family, family history of mental illness, drug use, experiencing violence or trauma or other issues.

In addition to the presence of disabilities that may be associated with school failure, truancy and delinquency, other contributing issues include:

  • Limited access to effective mental health services
  • Inadequate or inappropriate school supports
  • Misdiagnosis of disabilities or attribution of problematic behavior to willfulness
  • Zero tolerance policies that disproportionately impact students with disabilities and youth of color
  • Higher rates of suspension and expulsion in school, which in turn, reinforce school failure and opportunities for delinquent behavior

The presence of a disability is never an excuse or rationalization for illegal behavior.  Awareness of, or suspicion about a disability, however, requires that greater efforts be made to identify students whose problematic behaviors or school failure may be a result of  anxiety, depression, learning challenges or other stressors.

Knowledge about a disability should also raise the following questions by an attorney, probation officer or judge:

  • Can the youth read? Is he or she able to understand questions?

Did the youth receive special education services in school? If so, does his or her Individualized Education Program include appropriate interventions that address disability needs?

  • Does the information about this youth and his or her behavior suggest that further evaluation may be necessary? (For example, do records show histories of abuse and neglect, violence, etc. that might symptoms suggest that the youth has Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder?)
  • Is the youth’s family able to understand his or her disability needs?

If no formal determination of a disability exists:

  • Do the youth's behaviors seem to indicate that further evaluation is warranted Are they able to read or write, or understand questions? 
  • Do school records show a pattern of academic and behavioral problems?
  • Has there been a recent traumatic event in the youth’s life?

There are no simple or short formulas for reducing criminal behavior. Research consistently demonstrates that collaborative interventions that address needs at school, in the home and in the community can reduce the risk for involvement in delinquent or criminal behaviors. Many youth can benefit from:

  • Identification of and attention to disability needs (understanding the cause of behaviors)
  • Programs that promote self-awareness, academic, vocational and social skill building and competencies, and strategies to reduce impulsive and inappropriate behavior.
  • Family-based interventions that increase awareness of disability characteristics and needs, as well as problem solving and child management skills. Where family support is not available, similar efforts should be made with foster parents, surrogate parents and mentors.

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