Change of Direction Needed in Shelby County Juvenile Justice System 

As a long-time resident of Memphis and Shelby County, I am deeply concerned with the conditions of our youth, especially those entrenched within the juvenile justice system. Yes, there are a significant number of youths involved in delinquent behavior, and in some cases, heinous crimes that threaten the public's well-being. Yet, despite the growing challenges relating to juvenile crime and delinquency, these problems are often dismissed to failed punitive approaches, with the true remedies overlooked by way of divisions along socioeconomic status, race, poverty, and the like.   

click to enlarge Thurston Smith
  • Thurston Smith

For far too long, the general public has stigmatized these children as "bad kids," attributing their behaviors solely to inept parenting and a blatant disregard for the law; meanwhile, the root causes of these behaviors are ignored. Although the need for public safety is inarguable, a shift in philosophy and approach is also required if we are to realize any meaningful improvements in juvenile crime and delinquency. Comprehensive mental health programming is a great start. 

As America's juvenile justice system and adult penal system are both distressed with mental health issues, more resources should be devoted to address these conditions. Unfortunately, the harsh realities of the juvenile justice system have done very little in the area of true reform. And this includes effectively combatting juvenile recidivism and keeping our youth in school. As most juvenile justice programs are structured as replicas in miniature of adult penal institutions, why should we expect anything different?  

In 2015, the U.S. Department of Education awarded nearly $25 million in mental health counseling funds to various school districts across the country. The Department of Education has a clear understanding of the inseparable relationship between student health and academic outcomes. Availing ourselves of the same logic, we need a similar philosophy when working with our juvenile offenders.  

As mental health issues often persist and go undetected for long periods of time, early interventions are very important. This is precisely why our Memphis and Shelby County juvenile justice system should shift to a public health approach. Research indicates that mental health counseling and trauma-informed treatment yield much better outcomes, particularly in the area of repeat offenders. 

Both the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the U.S. Justice Department's Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Programs (OJJDP) report that more than 60 percent of the youth within our juvenile justice system have diagnosable mental health and/or substance abuse problems, and in many cases, also suffer from severe mental illness (SMI), bipolar, schizophrenia, etc.   

Moreover, the OJJDP also reports that a significant number of youth detained in detention centers throughout America were raised in violent households, many of which were plagued with substance abuse, physical abuse, and childhood neglect. These traumatizing experiences often adversely affect the stages of childhood growth and development and, when untreated, leave the child exposed to feelings of guilt, shame, and unresolved hostility. This syndrome is referred to as Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) and is the basis for the trauma-informed care approach and the newly proposed Juvenile Assessment Center. This is a matter of public health, with considerable benefits to public safety.

Having worked in the behavioral health profession for over 25 years, I can attest to the value mental health counseling has in helping children, families, and adults. And when our youth "act out" in unhealthy ways on the outside, this is merely a reflection of what is occurring on their inside in their hearts and minds. Translating this to layman's terms, these youth are hurting. 

The administrative costs of managing our youth within the juvenile justice system are far higher than the expense of providing them with counseling and other lifesaving resources. If we are indeed concerned with the well-being of our youth and are seeking real reform in our juvenile justice system, then we must change our approach — even in the case of seemingly confirmed lawbreakers. If we fail to do so, then we can expect a spiraling trend of anarchy in our community. I say, let's make the investment; it's well worth it.

Thurston S. Smith is mental health program manager with the Veterans Health Administrator, a policy analyst, and a juvenile-justice advocate.


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