Juvenile Delinquency and Mental Health Issues

Juvenile Delinquency refers to “children committing crimes that result in legal intervention”. A juvenile can be prevented from committing crimes if the causes of juvenile delinquency are well understood. Criminologists have established various theories to describe the onset of juvenile delinquency. These theories include Social Learning theory, Control theory and Strain theory.

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As stated by Social Learning theory, juvenile delinquency results when juveniles interact and learn from adults who are involved in deviant behavior (Akers, Krohn, Lanza-Kaduce & Radosevich, 1979; Burgess & Akers, 1996; Matsueda, 1988; Sutherland & Cressey, 1978). Juveniles tend to learn deviant behavior when they are emotionally dependant on their parents or sibling as a child. According to Bohman (1978), it is most likely that children raised with parents who have a history of criminal record shall engage in crimes themselves. Eron & Huesmann (1982), Smith, Visher and Jarjoura (1991) suggested that children are mostly likely to engage in juvenile misconduct when they are exposed to deviant role models.

As stated by Control theory (Gotterfredon & Hirschi, 1990; Hirschi, 1969; Reckless, 1961), delinquency results from the absence of important restrictions on youth’s behavior. Children, who do not experience proper parental affection, care and supervision due to the lack of effective childrearing by one or both parents, are less likely to commit crimes than other juveniles involved in delinquency (cited by Prochnow J.E and DeFronzo J.V). Hirschi (1995) found that parental conflict, family disorganization and other problems within the family can elevate the rate of delinquency due to the lack of proper parental love, care and supervision.

As stated by Strain theory, delinquency results due to economic environmental factors (Agnew, 1992; Cohen, 1955; Merton, 1938). According to this theory, juveniles who live in poverty-stricken areas, lack proper education and employment opportunities tend to undergo frustrations that provoke them to commit crimes.

Each of these three theories necessitates a particular specific-policy for dealing with delinquency. Learning theory recommends that society should help prevent delinquency by detaching juveniles from deviant role models and offering positive role models. Control theory suggests that the ideal way to prevent delinquency is to provide family dependability, effectual parenting and positive familial relationships within the members of the family. Strain theory suggests that delinquency can be prevented by providing parents with employments that yield sufficient pay or welfare assistance and basic necessities which include housing, food and medical care (cited by Prochnow, J.E and DeFronzo, J.V).

According to the study conducted by Prochnow, J.E and DeFronzo, J.V, parental characteristics which include parental arrest, parental drug use parental educational background were considerably associated to some kind of deviant behavior. The findings of this study was consistent with the Social Learning theory of delinquency in which higher parental educational background tend to reduce behavioral problems in children, however; parental drug use or parental arrest aggravated the child’s behavioral problems.

According to a recent study conducted by Teplin, Abram, McClelland, Dulcan & Mericle, 2002, indicated that almost two thirds of male juveniles and three quarters of female youths restrained in Cook County, Illinois suffered from one or more psychiatric disorders. Issues with regard to competence of juveniles to stand trial in a delinquency proceeding as received less consideration from legal and mental health professionals equally. “Today, approximately half of the states recognize specifically the concept of competence in juvenile proceedings, either through statute or case law” (Redding & Frost, 2001). Bonnie & Grisso, 2000; Grisso, 1998; Grisso et al., 2003 suggested that “considerably less is known about the competence-related abilities of juveniles in comparison with their adult counterparts”.

In the state of Florida, competence for juveniles is similar to that of the adults, which is normally recognized by the Supreme Court in Dusky v. United States (1960). After studying the empirical literature based on the subject and characteristics of forensic mental health evaluations; Nicholson and Norwood drew the conclusion that there was significant difference in the assessment performance of the examiners. They observed that there was a lack of consistency in psychological tests, unable to consider the factors important to legal issues in the court, unable to find relation between the test results and legal issues of importance and absence of employing essential third-party facts.

There are various standards for ascertaining whether a forensic evaluation submitted to the court is sufficient. First, the examiner is required to mention specific issues in his/her report under which an evaluation was completed. Second, even though there are no standards or guidelines set up by any psychological organizations, it is important that certain important elements must be mentioned in all forensic reports. Third, the examiner is required to state in the report the mental status examination which includes appearance of the client, mood, affect, insight, memory, orientation, thought content, speech, concentration and other issues related to it, if the client suffers from a mental disorder or impairment.

The study conducted by Christy, Douglas, Otto & Petrila, 2004; has provided recommendations for mental health professionals who are willing to perform competency assessments in juvenile justice system. First, it is essential to be familiar with the laws and respond to the legal questions asked. The main purpose of competency evaluation is to help the legal system make the proper decisions. Second, as mental health professionals it is important to acquire knowledge in the field of competency assessments through education, reviewing literature, consulting with colleagues and clinical experience obtained through supervision. Third, practitioners must know the dissimilarities in forensic and therapeutic assessments. In psychotherapy, it is critical to build rapport with the client and help identify their treatment recommendations. However; in forensic assessment it is vital to build working rapport but not necessarily a long-term rapport. Fourth, practitioners must be aware of the professional and ethical laws related to forensic assessment. Fifth, the mental health professionals must only employ assessment tests that are appropriate for the situation. Sixth, it is important for the practitioners to provide a complete explanation of the psychological evaluation process and mental status examination.

In the research conducted by Christy, Douglas, Otto & Petrila, 2004; they concluded that there was a great disparity in the juvenile competence assessment reports both legally and clinically. Studies have indicated that children may not display any vital psychological symptoms or any signs of acute cognitive disorganizations, however; they may still not be able to meet the standards required for competency due to the natural developmental immaturity or lack of cognitive skills similar to the adults (Cooper, 1997; Savitsky & Karras, 1984).

The primary purpose of the juvenile court was to rehabilitate the juvenile by providing proper treatment rather than punishing him/her (Grisso, 1996; 1998). One of the primary changes in the juvenile justice system has been the enhanced need for competency evaluations for juvenile delinquent. “In Dusky v United States (1960), the court held that the decision regarding competence would take into consideration whether the defendant has sufficient present ability to consult with his lawyer with a reasonable degree of rational understanding and whether he has rational as well as factual understanding of the proceedings against him”.

Research conducted by Riffin, 2005; he suggested that the adjudicative competence can be mentioned at any time during the trial. However, on many occasions the subject it put forward by the defense counsel when he/she encounters a difficulty conversing with the client. Judges frequently brings up the issue when he/she notices a usual behavior on the part of the client. Sometimes, the issue is raised when the authorities have an understanding that the defendant is suffering from some form of mental illness.

When the judge orders for an evaluation, the evaluation can be performed on the same day; however, in many instances the juvenile court may take numerous weeks to complete the evaluation and it is carried out on an outpatient basis. In such cases, several interviews with the client are conducted to examine the defendant’s ability to preserve, incorporate and logically utilize the information being discussed. In addition, the parents of the defendant are interviewed to obtain background history of the client. Defendants who are a danger to self or others due to a mental disorder are committed to an inpatient psychiatric facility for further evaluation to stand trial.

Researchers agree to the fact that there are multiple factors that make the juvenile competency evaluations noticeably different from adult competency evaluations. First, based on the level of functioning needed to actively participate in the trial proceedings; the juvenile will be prosecuted in an adult criminal court or juvenile court (Bonnie & Grisso, 2000; Grisso, 1998, 2000). Second, there is a huge difference in the method the Dusky standards have been applied in the juvenile courts across the United States and concerns related to the total relevancy of this standard for the competency of juveniles to stand trial are prevalent (Barnum, 2000; Bonnie & Grisso, 2000; Grisso, Miller, & Sales, 1987; Oberlander, Goldstein & Ho, 2001). Third, queries regarding the duty of the attorney, child’s parents or an advocate appointed by the court could assist the juvenile offender in the trial proceedings (Schnyder & Brodsky, 2002; Tobey, Grisso & Schwartz 2000; Woolard, 2002). Lastly, the level of maturity plays an important role in assessing whether a juvenile offender is capable of standing trial or not (Grisso, 1996, 1998; Woolard et al., 1996). “Competency concerns may occur at any time in the process and may occur more than once. The competency of a defendant may be at issue, for example, during a confession, a plea agreement, a trial, a dispositional or sentencing hearing, or even at the time of execution in a capital case”

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In general, practitioners employ a variety of methods required to evaluate the maturity in juvenile competency evaluations. However, a large number of the practitioners depend on clinical interviews and assessment data to determine maturity and more than one-third make use of behavioral observation and examine the records to collect required information (cited by Ryba, Cooper, Zapf, 2003).

The Intelligence tests (WAIS-III, WISC-III and WAIS-R), Vineland Adaptive Behavior Scales, MMPI-A or MMPI-2, Rorschach, The Thematic Apperception Test and The Human Figure Drawing Test were the different tests that were administered to evaluate the level of maturity in juveniles offenders. It is quite clear that mental health professionals employing intelligence tests and adaptive behavior assessments are looking for information that might assess the cognitive abilities of the juvenile and his/her level of functioning. These results obtained from the intelligence tests assist in gathering information related to the juvenile’s capacity to comprehend and purpose within the juvenile court system. It is important for the psychologist to select the tests that are valid and that have adequate psychometric properties.

The use of projective methods to assess the competency of a juvenile does not seem to be appropriate. However; if the mental health professionals are employing these tests to assess the personality of the juvenile that is particularly relevant to the level of maturity, then administration of these tests are acceptable. Prior researches conducted on the use of Rorschach in forensic evaluations has indicated that majority of the practitioners fail to use the standardized scoring system which counteracts the validity of the test; thereby, making it an insignificant choice for forensic evaluations (Wakefield & Underwater, 1993).

Research conducted by Romaine, Kemp & DeMatteo, 2010; suggested that it is essential for juvenile who undergo competency evaluations to have a better knowledge of the duty of people in the courtroom and an understanding of how these individuals interact. Studies indicate that majority of the juveniles have a wrong idea about the legal system (e.g., Grisso, 1997; Peterson-Badali & Abramovitch, 1992). It is essential to assess how the juvenile arrives at a decision and consider the advantages and disadvantages related with different options. Studies suggest that “youth are less able to spontaneously generate long-term consequences and make long-term decisions with those consequences in mind” (MacArthur Foundation Network, 2006).

Research indicates that both juveniles and adults suffering from mental retardation tend to comply with authority figures (Melton, Petrila, Poythress, & Slobogin, 2007). During an evaluation of a juvenile’s competency to stand trial, it is critical to assess the extent to which the juvenile tend to comply with authority figures. Children between the ages 11 to 15 will most likely make decisions that conform with authorities compared to young adults (Grisso et. al., 2003). By employing structured interviews like the JACI, helps in determining juvenile’s abilities and their capacity to make decisions.

According to Steinberg and Cauffman (2001), indicated that youths below the age of 13 are not an appropriate candidate to be transferred to adult criminal court. However, youths above the age of 16 most likely acquire cognitive abilities similar to that of adults (cited by Mayzer, Bradley, Rusinko & Ertelt, 2009). “Neuropsychological tests are designed to assess cognitions and capabilities based on cortical regions which continue to develop into young adulthood, and that mirror or enable the psychological skills associated with adjudicative competence”. However, very few researches are available revealing the association between juvenile competency and neuropsychological literature.

Researchers have recorded that 40% to 90% of juveniles and adolescents detained in the juvenile justice system are diagnosed with mental illness when compared to 18% to 22% of the overall youth population (Cocozza, Stern, & Blau, 2005; Kazdin 2000; Teplin, 2001; Teplin, Abram, McClelland, Dulcan, & Mericle, 2002). Therefore, it is most likely that mental illness play a vital role in their deviant behavior.

Researchers indicated that many children and adolescents who gain access to the community-based mental health services are suffering from serious emotional disturbance (SED) (Graves, Frabutt, Shelton, 2007). “SED is defined as having a clinical diagnosis, a functional impairment and disturbances in multiple domains within the child’s life (Pumariega & Winter, 2003). The population of United States constitutes about 4.5 to 6.3 million children suffering from SED (Friedman, Katz-Leavy, Manderscheid & Sondheimer, 1999). Based on the community samples, prior researchers have revealed that 46% to 88% of the children detained in the juvenile justice system suffer from SED (Lyons, Baerger, Quigley, Erlich & Griffin, 2001).

Visher’s (1983) research documented that young African American girls were most likely to be arrested than older European American girls. The statistics reveal that African American children and adolescents were involved in violent behaviors to a greater extent than European Americans or Hispanic children (Blum, Ireland & Blum, 2003; Earls, 1994; Kashani et al., 1999; Snyder, 2005). According to Snyder, 2005; and U.S Department of Justice, 2000; “of the estimated 1,400 murder arrests in 1999 and 2003, 49% and 48% were African American adolescents respectively”.

Research performed by Graves, Frabutt, Shelton, 2007; indicated that more boys than girls who suffered mental illness were involved with juvenile justice system. However, girls who were dually involved (involvement in mental health services and juvenile justice system) had considerably decreased levels of functioning than boys who were dually involved. Children (boys & girls) who had more changes in their living circumstances were most likely to be dually involved.

Studies suggested that girls who suffered from anxiety and depression increased the likelihood of being involved with the juvenile justice system (Simmons, 2002; Teplin et al., 2002).

For instance, girls are at a greater danger for suicidal ideation than boys comparatively; and suicidal ideas and suicidal attempts are often related with higher rate of antisocial behavior (Chandy, Blum & Resnick, 1996). School failures which include high absenteeism and poor educational performances have been identified as been considered as risk factors for involvement in juvenile justice system (USDoJ, 1995). Studies have indicated that this factor could be higher in girls compared to boys (Rankin, 1980; Thorton, Craft, Dahlberg, Lynch & Baer, 2002). A better understanding of the mental health requirements of juveniles involved in the juvenile justice system could assist bring forth a complete treatment plan for the children.


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