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Rehabilitating the Juvenile Justice System

Rehabilitating the Juvenile Justice System [ ]Abstract Research indicates that youth with disabilities are over-represented in the juvenile justice system. Although The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) has provisions related to the juvenile justice system, high proportions of youth are never screened and therefore never get identified as having a disability. By diverting youth with disabilities to treatment facilities, the system can address the problems that precipitated their detention and reduce the probability of recidivism.

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Planning for transition back into the community should begin the moment a child enters the juvenile system. Transitional assistance should involve family, educators, and behavioral health professionals. The system was created with rehabilitation in mind and with a little rehabilitation of its own it can return to its original roots. Rehabilitating the Juvenile Justice System Juvenile crime is a serious concern that is shared by the general public as well as state, local, and federal officials.

The birthplace of the juvenile court can be traced back to Chicago in 1899 where it was created to address the needs of young offenders by diverting them from the destructive punishments of the adult criminal court system. The juvenile court was established with the specific purpose of encouraging rehabilitation based on the individual juvenile’s needs. By design the court was to focus on the offender’s need of assistance, not the actual crime that brought him before the court.

It is estimated that at least forty percent of incarcerated youth have a diagnosable learning disability. It is also well established that the majority of youth who enter the juvenile justice system have higher rates of diagnosable mental health disorders than youth in the general population. In one study of first offenders, ninety-three percent had at least one DSM-V diagnosis, including conduct disorder

The juvenile justice system was created with the express purpose of diverting young offenders from the criminal court system and offering opportunities for rehabilitation in place of incarceration. Information about a youth’s disability is relevant at every stage of a juvenile court case and proper screening could help explain behavior in a way that leads to constructive intervention versus confinement. Education has been a proven medium for successfully rehabilitating juvenile offenders and reducing the rate of recidivism.

Youth within the juvenile justice system are very likely to need assistance to return to public schools or alternative learning centers. The problems encountered by youth within the system who are returning to school are even further exacerbated when the youth have special needs. Research indicates that learning disabled and emotionally disturbed youth were almost always the least likely to have their transition needs met. A Wisconsin study that spanned three years found only 1. 6% of the released juveniles returned to school and graduated (Agnew, 2005).

Youth with learning disabilities or emotional disturbance are eligible for special education and related services under the Federal Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA). Proper screening, diversion to community based rehabilitation, and transition assistance can assist disabled youth involved in the juvenile justice system reach their educational potential by giving them the tools they need to succeed. Youthful offenders with disabilities who find themselves involved with the juvenile justice system report that their disability is often unnoticed and/or not addressed (Mendel, 2003).

Unfortunately, these oversights greatly reduce their chances of leading productive lives as adults. Early identification of these disabilities is important to the integrity of a youth’s case. A disability has the potential to profoundly impact a youth’s ability to understand the charges against him, court proceedings, legal strategies, or even the consequences of his actions/behavior. The knowledge of a youth’s disability may even help determine if formal criminal proceedings are warranted and need to occur.

Many youth in the juvenile justice system might not have landed there had their disabilities and related needs been addressed. If a disability is not known or overlooked, other rehabilitative interventions in lieu of detention may also be ignored. If detention is deemed necessary, the youth’s parents have the right to be involved in educational planning, which may directly affect where the individual is placed. Title II of the Americans with Disabilities ACT (ADA), 42 U. S. C. 12131, protects youth with disabilities being educated in public institutions, or by public agencies.

State and local juvenile justice facilities qualify as “public agencies” and are thereby mandated to provide special education and related services to the youth with special needs that are committed to their care (Hardman, Drew, & Egan, 2008). If these services were consistently provided it is doubtful that youth with special needs would languish in the system as long as many of them do. Many practitioners, to include judges, prosecutors, probation officers, and other correctional staff, have very little knowledge about disability law or the needs of youth with disabilities.

According to the department of juvenile justice, few states even screen or assess youthful offenders. The problem is further compounded by a lack of communication between schools, social service agencies, and the juvenile justice system. Everyone has a piece of the puzzle and until they communicate with one another the picture will never be complete. In addition to improving communication, juvenile justice practitioners should also be educated about the unique needs of youths with disabilities.

Increased knowledge of the signs and symptoms of a disability could prompt them to initiate an assessment/screening. For detained youth, functional assessments/screening tools that are implemented upon admission could target each youth’s specific needs and capabilities. Functional assessments involve continuous measurement that identifies discrepancies between the student’s educational achievement, social and vocational adjustment, and ability to function in an educational program.

Developing a standardized educational approach to serving the many youth with special needs should be a priority for the juvenile justice system. It is important to note that in addition to core general education classes, youthful offenders with disabilities are more likely to need instruction in social and vocational skills than their peers. Above all, early identification of special needs should lead to diversion into a treatment/rehabilitation model whenever possible. A number of common traits can be found among the special needs youth involved with the department of juvenile justice.

Youth with identified cognitive, emotional, or educational disabilities are more likely to make poor decisions that lead to involvement in crime. They are also less assertive and possess few avoidance techniques, which leads to detention because they are likely to get caught. Once in the system, youth with special needs often receive harsher treatment than their peers due to their poor social skills. They also have a much higher rate of recidivism than youth that are not disabled (Katsiyannis, Ryan, ; Zhang, 2008).

Juvenile court judges have a variety of alternative sentencing options to chose from such as probation, issuing fines, referrals to mental health programs, or community service to name a few. Disabled youth can be diverted from secure facilities via alternative sentencing. Alternative sentencing should be used by Judges to impose individualized, least restrictive, and more meaningful sentences, thereby making the punishment more effective than automatic incarceration. Alternative sentencing for youth with special needs makes more sense than arbitrarily incarcerating them.

Punishment without rehabilitation is pointless because the core issues are not being addressed. Community-based treatment is a cost effective approach that decreases recidivism and holds offenders accountable within a setting that provides opportunities for rehabilitation and education while managing the risks the offender may pose to public safety. Community based-interventions are not new to the juvenile justice system and have been used by some states for decades. For example, the state of Pennsylvania created Act 148 in 1976 which changed the fiscal architecture of its juvenile justice system.

Act 148 created a “needs-based” budget and planning system for youth services that allowed state funding to be flexed in order to meet the needs of local demands for services (Jensen ; Potter, 2003). For disabled youth, these placements may include group homes or other types of non-secure residential settings that allow the offender to attend public school and potentially hold jobs or participate in volunteer-work within their communities. The money spent on incarcerating young offenders could be much better served by developing community-based programs or focusing on prevention.

In a rehabilitative setting, both education and mental health issues are addressed and treated. Additionally, youth are given the opportunity to explore the underlying issues that may have contributed to their engagement in criminal behavior. If detained, youth with special needs are more likely to be exposed to and influenced by the negative or even toxic behaviors of the system. It is the natural assumption that youthful offenders will someday be released from custody and return to society before they reach adulthood. If detained, it is unfortunate that the negative influences they were exposed to may have predisposed them to failure.

Personal accountability for actions and decisions is the cornerstone of a civilized society. In a rehabilitation program, youth can be taught how to make better and more informed decisions at a pace they can thrive in. They should also learn that there are swift consequences for poor decisions and both tangible and intangible rewards for good decisions. The given is that the youth will serve his time and be released. The variable is how he will perform afterward. Youth with special needs have no business being detained in systems where their needs are either overlooked or ignored.

Diversion to rehabilitation could and should be viewed as both a legitimate and viable goal for youthful offenders with special needs. Planning for transition back into the community should begin the moment a child enters the juvenile justice system. A successful transition back to the community requires the coordinated efforts of many. The community itself has a responsibility to help parents fulfill their parental role and to offer them assistance in the form of resources, encouragement, and support (Deuteronomy 21:18-21 New International Version).

The provision of transition services to youth with disabilities in the juvenile justice system is mandated by law and communication between organizations is paramount to a successful transition. The transition mandates outlined by IDEA provide for documenting transition services in the IEP’s of students 14 or older by including: a statement of the needed transition services for the student to include services that are based on the student’s needs, preferences, and interests (Spencer ; Walker, 2004).

One key element of a successful transition is a transition team, which includes the youth, a parent or caring adult who serves the role of surrogate parent, and other stakeholders that will be involved directly and indirectly with the transition process. Other stakeholders may include; a probation officer, teachers, court personal, mental health providers, and other professionals. Another element is a transition plan. The transition plan should be viewed as a road map that guides them to appropriate services.

It is vital that youth understand their own personal plan for moving from the juvenile justice system back into the community. Clearly identified support services are also key. The transition plan should include these support services; it will not be useful if it simply outlines the youth’s educational and vocational goals without identifying and providing information about specific supports services like mental health, vocational rehab, or mentoring services. Youth in the juvenile justice system have needs that typically require involvement with multiple agencies.

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