Treatment courts – also called “problem solving courts” – have been around for a decades. The purpose of these courts is to use the power of the criminal court to get at the heart of recurring problems, rather than simply cycle people over and over through the courts and jails. Most everyone has heard of drug courts, veterans’ courts, domestic violence courts, and mental health courts. The underlying idea is that unless we look at a person’s situation, whether it is a behavioral health problem such as mental illness or substance use, we are not going to interrupt their continued trips through the justice system.

Mental health court and drug court research show that they work – they funnel more people into evidence-based treatments, keep people out of jail and prison, and reduce their criminal offending. Even for people who don’t “graduate” from programs, some treatment court experience generally improves their outcomes.

Some juvenile court judges have over the past few years begun to create a special docket for the youth who they see in court who are having behavioral health difficulties, including mental health and substance use, but also truancy and other youth-only problems. These new problem solving courts are juvenile mental health courts and are currently being studied by PRA with funding from the National Institute of Justice.

Juvenile Mental Health Courts

There are currently about 45 specialty juvenile mental health courts across the U.S. with most being in Ohio and California. While they aren’t popping up as quickly as drug courts, there is steady stream of these new programs. In addition to the initiative of judges to create the dockets, there are a number of reasons why JMHCs are increasingly more popular – states are reducing access to state-run juvenile detention facilities requiring diversion programs, and evidence from similar adult programs shows that they work. The trend in juvenile justice is away from using detention as a first resort for repeat juvenile offenders. Some states, like Ohio, have state-level fiscal incentives to reduce reliance on detention, allowing counties to use their savings for community treatment.

Are JMHCs Necessary?

These new programs are not without controversy – first, there is the fear that they “widen the justice net,” pulling kids under court supervision who would otherwise just receive a scolding. Second, because an admission of “guilt” is required in most treatment courts, including JMHCs, others worry that youth can’t really “voluntarily” take responsibility and truly know what they are agreeing to such as extended supervision. Lastly, the more philosophical issue is whether juvenile mental health courts are even necessary – isn’t that what juvenile courts are supposed to do for all kids – identify their problems,  help connect them and their families to the programs and supports, and avoid further justice contact?

Our research speaks to some of these concerns – first, most JMHCs include youth who have been taken into custody for behaviors such as assault and drug offenses. In fact, many courts strongly discourage accepting cases such as truancy and running away from home, otherwise known as status offenses. And, people under 18 can’t give consent; their guardians are the ones who sign them up for the programs. Finally, during the 1990s, we moved away from juvenile courts being about rehabilitation and diversion, focusing instead on the fabled “super predator” youthful offender.

Whether or not JMHCs meet the goal of diverting young offenders away from further justice involvement is yet to be seen. These programs do, however, use the power of the gavel to connect kids and families to community-based services.

We recently asked a group of young adults who had participated in one of the larger JMHC programs, “Where would you be today if you hadn’t been in the program?” Without missing a beat, one young man said, “Dead. But I am now in community college. I didn’t graduate from the program, but I learned a lot, and it saved my life.”