National Alliance on Mental Illness
page printed from
(800) 950-NAMI;

NAMI Calls for Juvenile Justice Reform!

While about 1 in 10 youth in America have a major mental illness, less than one-third of children who need mental health treatment do not receive any services at all, and even fewer receive appropriate care.

Where do kids who need treatment for a mental illness but fail to get it end up?  Far too many of them land in the juvenile justice system – where an alarming 70% of youth have one or more psychiatric disorders.ii  At least 20% of youth involved in the juvenile justice system have serious mental illnesses, including those that are suicidal, struggling with psychotic disorders and other serious illnesses.iii

Children with mental illnesses are locked up everyday because of our nation’s fragmented and broken mental health system – one that was described by President Bush’s New Freedom Commission on Mental Health as being “in shambles.”  The New Freedom Commission called for the wide-spread adoption of juvenile justice diversion and re-entry strategies to avoid the unnecessary criminalization and extended incarceration of non-violent juvenile offenders with mental illnesses.iv

Many youth with mental illnesses that are locked in detention centers across the country have committed “status” and nonviolent offenses that are caused by the symptoms of their illness.  These ranks include youth that have not been charged with an offense, but are simply awaiting mental health treatment.v  We are destroying these young people’s lives, often their families’ lives and wasting taxpayer money to warehouse these children.  This is morally abhorrent and poor public policy – to say the least.

NAMI calls on local, state and federal leaders to take immediate steps to help address and bring an end to this crisis, including the following:

  • Work with families and child-serving agencies (juvenile justice, mental health, education and child welfare) to develop a comprehensive plan to reform the juvenile justice system to ensure that youth with mental health treatment needs involved in nonviolent offenses are diverted into effective home and community-based treatment programs;
  • Screen youth for mental health and substance use treatment needs at initial contact with the juvenile justice system followed by appropriate diversion and treatment; and
  • Train those working in the criminal justice system (judges, lawyers, probation officers, corrections officers and others) about mental illnesses in youth and disseminate information about effective approaches for identifying, diverting and serving youth in the juvenile justice system that have mental health treatment needs.  Also, provide information on re-entry transition programs that link youth to community-based services upon discharge.

Budget deficits do not justify destroying the lives of children – political leaders and policy makers are paying far more NOW to warehouse these youth than they would be in providing them with effective treatment and services for their mental illnesses.  Research shows that diversion into effective treatment programs helps to reduce juvenile recidivism rates and is more cost

NAMI applauds those state and local leaders that recognize the injustice of locking up youth with mental health treatment needs and have made the commitment to juvenile justice reform. We look forward to working with local, state and national leaders to resolve this crisis and to helping to improve the future of youth living with mental illnesses, nearly all of whom have the ability to go on to lead full and productive lives when they receive appropriate interventions. 

October 2006

iUS Department of Health and Human Services. Mental Health: A Report of the Surgeon General. 1999.

iiNational Center for Mental Health and Juvenile Justice. Blueprint for Change:  A Comprehensive Model for the Identification and Treatment of Youth with Mental Health Needs in Contact with the Juvenile Justice System.  2006.

iiiNCMHJJ, Blueprint for Change.  2006.

ivNew Freedom Commission on Mental Health, Achieving the Promise:  Transforming Mental Health Care in America. Final Report, at p. 43.  DHHS Pub. No. SMA-0303832.  Rockville, MD:  2003.

vU.S. House of Representatives Committee on Government Reform, Incarceration of Youth Who Are Waiting for Community Mental Health Services in the United States, July 2004 (access at

viResearch reported by The Washington State Institute for Public Policy and accessible on their website at

Related Files

NAMI Calls for Juvenile Justice Reform (Word Document)