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Juvenile Justice and Systems of Care: We Work Together

Juvenile justice professionals and children’s mental health advocates share the same goal: a productive and responsible life for all children and youth. Systems of Care can help achieve that goal. A System of Care is a coordinated network of community-based services and supports that is organized to meet the challenges of children and youth with serious mental health needs and their families.

Meeting the Mental Health Needs of Children and Youth Is Critical

Too often, the juvenile justice system becomes a “last resort” for children and youth who need mental health services. Consider the following:

  • Children and youth with unmet mental health needs are at higher risk of becoming involved with juvenile justice agencies. As many as 70 percent of the children and youth in the juvenile justice system have diagnosable mental health needs.1 As many as 86 percent may have experienced recurring trauma.2
  • Some youth in juvenile detention are there solely because community mental health services are not available. One study found that two-thirds of juvenile detention facilities hold children waiting for community mental health treatment.3
  • Housing a child in the juvenile justice system costs more than $94,000 per year. This figure does not include expenses for additional staff time and services to meet these children’s needs.4

Systems of Care Can Help

When children and youth with serious mental health needs receive coordinated services through Systems of Care, they can and do get better.

Systems of Care are...

  • Comprehensive. Partners include juvenile justice, child welfare, education, mental health, substance abuse, and health care professionals, as well as families, faith-based organizations, and other community partners.
  • Guided by common core values. Systems of Care are family-driven and youth-guided, culturally and linguistically competent, and community-based.
  • Effective and accountable. As part of a nationwide initiative, each System of Care is evaluated on the progress it makes toward helping children, youth, and families. Data are gathered regularly to ensure Systems of Care are financially and ethically accountable.

Working Together Benefits Everyone

Partnerships between juvenile justice professionals and Systems of Care can achieve the following:

  • Fewer children and youth sent to juvenile justice. By identifying appropriate community-based services and supports, Systems of Care can help keep children and youth who need mental health services out of the juvenile justice system.
  • Fewer negative interactions between law enforcement and youth. When children and youth are involved with Systems of Care, contacts with law enforcement decrease—in one study, by as much as 70 percent after 6 months of services.5
  • Reductions in delinquent and illegal behaviors. After 12 months in a System of Care, the percentage of youth who reported engaging in these behaviors fell by 25 percent. After 24 months, it fell by 44 percent.6
  • Better emotional outcomes for children and youth. Nearly 40 percent of youth involved in juvenile justice showed significant emotional and behavioral improvements during their first year in a System of Care. Substance use problems decreased as well.7
  • Improvements for children and youth who have experienced trauma. After 6 months, 21 percent of children in a System of Care showed a decrease in externalizing symptoms, such as aggression.8

Together, we can help ensure that juvenile justice resources are available to those who truly need them, while keeping children and youth with serious mental health needs out of the justice system and at home, where they belong.


  1. Shufelt, J. L., & Cocozza, J. J. (2006). Youth with Mental Health Disorders in the Juvenile Justice System: Results from a Multi-State Prevalence Study. Delmar, NY: National Center for Mental Health and Juvenile Justice. Retrieved from http://www.ncmhjj.com/pdfs/publications/PrevalenceRPB.pdf Exit Disclaimer (PDF - 348 KB)
  2. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2012). Promoting Recovery and Resilience for Children and Youth Involved in Juvenile Justice and Child Welfare Systems. Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved from http://www.samhsa.gov/children/SAMHSA_ShortReport_2012.pdf (PDF - 2.33 MB)
  3. Coalition for Juvenile Justice. (n.d.). Mental Health Needs of Youth and Young Offenders. Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved from http://www.juvjustice.org/media/factsheets/factsheet_8.pdf Exit Disclaimer (PDF - 60 KB)
  4. American Correctional Association. (2011). 2011 Directory of Adult and Juvenile Correctional Departments, Institutions, Agencies, and Probation and Parole Authorities. Alexandria, VA: Author (quoted in Coalition for Juvenile Justice. (n.d.). Mental Health Needs of Youth and Young Offenders. Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved from http://www.juvjustice.org/media/factsheets/factsheet_8.pdf Exit Disclaimer) (PDF - 60 KB)
  5. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2012). Promoting Recovery and Resilience for Children and Youth Involved in Juvenile Justice and Child Welfare Systems. Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved from http://www.samhsa.gov/children/SAMHSA_ShortReport_2012.pdf (PDF - 2.33 MB)
  6. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Center for Mental Health Services. (2009). The Comprehensive Community Mental Health Services for Children and Their Families Program: Evaluation Findings—Report to Congress, 2009. Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved from http://store.samhsa.gov/shin/content/PEP12-CMHI2009SUM/PEP12-CMHI2009SUM.pdf (PDF - 3.56 MB)
  7. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2012). Promoting Recovery and Resilience for Children and Youth Involved in Juvenile Justice and Child Welfare Systems. Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved from http://www.samhsa.gov/children/SAMHSA_ShortReport_2012.pdf (PDF - 2.33 MB)
  8. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2011). Helping Children and Youth Who Have Experienced Traumatic Events. Washington, DC: Author.

If you or someone you know is in crisis and needs to talk, please call 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255).

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