Focus on Behavioral Health is Key to Successful Local Juvenile Justice Diversion Programs

January 21, 2014

By Laura Furr

Due to the increased spotlight on recidivism and a growing consensus that children involved in juvenile court are at risk of worse life outcomes, many states and cities are investigating ways to remove children from juvenile court and provide alternative treatments in the community.

One such effort is Baltimore’s diversion program. Formed out of a partnership between the Baltimore City Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice (MOCJ), the Baltimore City Police and prosecutors, this program demonstrates how city leadership can divert youth from court prosecution to community-based behavioral health services.

To encourage and support systems to build on and enhance diversion models like this, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s (MacArthur) Models for Change initiative recently announced support for a new national resource center dedicated to addressing mental health issues in juvenile justice reform efforts. As part of this initiative, MacArthur has also renewed its partnership with the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).

Juvenile courts across the nation regularly prosecute young people with behavioral health needs. Indeed, whereas about 20 percent of adolescents in the general population have diagnosable mental health disorders, an estimated 70 percent of youth in the juvenile justice system have a diagnosable mental health disorder.

Baltimore Diversion Initiative

MOCJ facilitates diversion from juvenile court prosecution to community-based services for about 425 children and youth annually. If successful in the community-based program, a youth no longer faces prosecution in juvenile court.  In 2012, only 25 youth failed to complete the program and faced prosecution.

MOCJ created the grant-funded position of Diversion Program Coordinator in 2010 to manage a therapeutically-minded system that holds youth accountable for their actions and connects them with community-based services designed to meet the underlying needs triggering their problem behaviors.  Available services include in-home mental health counseling, substance abuse treatment, restorative justice community conferencing, community service (usually reserved for youth already engaged in other positive activities like school or job training) and youth court. 

Youth arrested in Baltimore City and charged with most misdemeanors become eligible for diversion through this initiative. Based on the results of a holistic, family-inclusive assessment, the Child and Adolescent Needs and Strengths (CANS), the Diversion Program Coordinator determines which community-based service best fits the child. Unsurprisingly, most of the youth need some form of behavioral health service.

National Resources for Behavioral Health in Juvenile Justice Reform

Recognizing the need for national resources on behavioral health in juvenile justice systems, the new Models for Change Mental Health and Juvenile Justice Collaborative for Change Resource Center provides a range of resources to leaders. Review the Collaborative’s recently released website for more information.

In addition to the information and resources available on the new website, the Collaborative for Change also provides juvenile justice and mental health system administrators, policymakers, program providers and direct care staff with a help desk staffed with professionals ready to answer questions and provide information, consultation and assistance for complex requests and on-site training opportunities.

Cementing its focus on behavioral health in juvenile justice reform, MacArthur has also renewed its partnership with SAMHSA. The partners will select five states to receive technical assistance on how to better meet the behavioral health needs of youth. Cities will be able to learn from the models and lessons generated by these states. For more information on this resource, visit the announcement.

Stay tuned for more examples of city leadership in juvenile justice reform as part of the NLC Institute for Youth, Education and Family’s new Municipal Leadership for Juvenile Justice Reform project. To learn more and share promising practices and policies from your city, contact Laura Furr at furr@nlc.org or (202)626-3072.