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In the last sixteen years, California’s counties have assumed an increased responsibility for the state’s justice involved youth. The Governor and independent policy organizations such as the Legislative Analyst’s Office have argued that the state’s counties are better equipped than the state’s youth correctional system to serve high needs youth. This vulnerable population is often exposed to childhood trauma and violence resulting in an increased need for mental health services which can be more effectively provided in the community rather than in an institutional setting. 

Health and the well-being of youth should be a key component of a comprehensive 21st Century approach to juvenile justice. Historically, mental health is often misunderstood and mental health services are undervalued in the correctional field. The role of mental health can be pivotal for youth that may be susceptible to involvement with the criminal justice system. Social determinants such as lower socio-economic status of youth create inequities that further compound mental health issues. Therefore, disadvantaged youth are more likely to have experienced trauma and are less likely to have had access to mental health care. 

Behaviors of untreated youth with mental illness can often be viewed as delinquent, when in fact their behavior may be a product of unmet needs. Exposure to trauma can impair a youth’s ability to self-regulate their behavior as well as diminish their ability to handle stress. For many youth, their first exposure to treatment for mental health issues will be when they become involved with the juvenile justice system 

Community-based services that provide protective factors for at-risk youth are often underutilized by the justice system. These services can promote pro-social factors that reduce a youth’s risk for involvement in delinquent activity. Furthermore, this can have long-term positive effects on decision making skills and the ability to cope with anxiety and stress. 

Research indicates that youth with mental health problems cost the public three times more than infectious diseases. One study conducted a cost benefit analysis for substance abuse and mental health treatment and estimated that there was an annual 170% return on the cost of investment, translating into a gain of $32.76 for every dollar spent. In an effort to improve the outcome for disadvantaged youth, there is an increasing need to expand mental health services. Strength based, evidence based approaches with individualized treatment plans serve as an equitable and affordable model. 

So, how can the state re-think its approach to juvenile justice? Recognizing a youth’s individualized social history which may often times include exposure to violence and trauma is imperative in order to achieve the best outcome for that individual, and society as a whole. Investing in mental health services is an essential element for justice systems to incorporate. Using a trauma-informed lens can assist in cultivating a 21st century approach to juvenile justice that promotes positive youth outcomes while achieving the goals of public safety. 

~Christa CollinsCJCJ Communications and Policy