Addressing the Needs of Youth with Disabilities in the Juvenile Justice System

The Current State of Knowledge

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Document date: November 01, 2003
Released online: November 01, 2003

The nonpartisan Urban Institute publishes studies, reports, and books on timely topics worthy of public consideration. The views expressed are those of the authors and should not be attributed to the Urban Institute, its trustees, or its funders.

Note: This report is available in its entirety in the Portable Document Format (PDF).


Executive Summary

Overview

This report summarizes and assesses the state of knowledge about children and youth with disabilities who are at risk of delinquency and involvement in, or who have already entered, the juvenile justice system. By highlighting what is known about addressing delinquency and the diverse needs among this population, it aims to inform policy discussions among policymakers, practitioners, and researchers. The report's specific objectives are to examine:

  • current laws and philosophical frameworks affecting children and youth with disabilities who are at risk of delinquency or are involved in the juvenile justice system;
  • the relationship between disability, delinquency, and involvement in the juvenile justice system;
  • the factors associated with disability and delinquency;
  • current and anticipated delinquency and disability-related programming for children and youth with disabilities who may enter or are in the juvenile justice system;
  • the effectiveness of prevention, intervention and treatment, and management strategies for reducing delinquency and addressing disabilityrelated needs among this population of children and youth;
  • barriers and facilitators to implementing effective strategies for helping these children and youth; and
  • recommended "next steps" for increasing the scope and quality of knowledge and practice for reducing delinquency among and addressing the disability-related needs of at-risk children and youth with disabilities.

To achieve these objectives, the report provides a systematic, multidimensional review of existing research and includes insights provided by service providers, administrators, policymakers, advocates, and researchers. It does not analyze new or existing data, nor does it discuss any one particular issue in detail. Rather, the report examines a range of interrelated issues to establish a broad-based foundation—a portrait of the "forest"—for understanding what is and is not known about children and youth with disabilities who are at risk of delinquency or juvenile justice involvement or who are already involved in the justice system.

Because there is no universally accepted definition, and thus measurement, of disability among children and youth, the report relies on the different definitions used in existing research. Federal legislative acts, professional organizations, social service and health agencies, schools, and various programs employ different terms, define the same terms differently, and use different types of information and approaches to diagnose and classify disabilities. Frequently, for example, terms such as "disorder," "impairment," "deficit," or "handicap" are used interchangeably even when they reflect different conceptualizations and measurements of disabilities. Some of the more common sources of data for assessing disabilities include biomedical evidence (e.g., to assess visual, auditory, or motor impairments), psychometric evaluations (e.g., to assess mental retardation or the presence of learning disabilities), and clinical judgment (e.g., to assess emotional and behavioral disorders). How this information is used for taxonomic purposes varies greatly. For example, the World Health Organization's International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems, tenth edition (ICD-10), and the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fourth edition (DSM-IV), use categorical systems. This classification approach focuses on etiology (e.g., brain injury), manifest impairment (e.g., visual, auditory, motor), or a construct (e.g., learning disability, attention deficit disorder). Increasingly, however, practitioners and researchers are turning to a functional assessment approach. This approach largely ignores etiology and focuses instead on basic functioning in areas such as cognition, communication, motor and social abilities, and patterns of interaction. Since each approach provides a broad-based strategy for conceptualizing disabilities, considerable variation arises in the measurement of disabilities within and between categorical and functional approaches.

The term "delinquency" here refers to violations of law by individuals legally defined as "juveniles." Typically, state laws use a specific age range (e.g., 10 to 17) as the sole criterion for determining whether an individual is a "juvenile" and thus subject to processing in the juvenile rather than adult justice system. Violations include status offenses (i.e., acts, such as running away from home or truancy, that only youth, by dint of their "status" as juveniles, can commit) and nonstatus offenses (i.e., acts, such as robbery and theft, that would be crimes if committed by adults). For the purposes of this report, a youth is delinquent if he or she has committed a status or nonstatus offense, whether or not the offense results in a referral to court. Youth who are "involved in the juvenile justice system" can include individuals in short-term detention, probation, long-term secure custody, residential treatment facilities, and aftercare/parole.

This report focuses on several groups of children and youth with disabilities: (1) those who have never committed a delinquent act but are at risk of doing so; (2) those who are engaged in delinquency but have not yet become involved in the juvenile justice system; and (3) those who are or have been involved in the juvenile justice system. All three groups by definition are at risk of delinquency and, by extension, involvement (or further involvement) in the juvenile justice system. In each group, the presence of a disability may or may not contribute to delinquency or a greater likelihood of juvenile justice system involvement (e.g., school referrals to juvenile courts); research suggests that both are possibilities. Regardless, federal law mandates that the civil rights of children and youth with disabilities be protected, including offering them special education and other disability-related services. This report therefore examines not only the issue of preventing or reducing delinquency among these different groups but also the provision of required services. The primary focus is on the juvenile justice system. However, schools also are considered because of their potential role in preventing delinquency and referrals to juvenile courts, as well as facilitating transitions from custodial facilities back into communities.

Definitional and measurement issues are critical to virtually all of the objectives of this report. They affect tasks such as identifying the prevalence of disabilities among youth at risk of delinquency or involved in the juvenile justice system. Consistent definitions also are necessary to help determine what interventions and policies are most effective for youth with specific types of disabilities at specific stages of juvenile justice. They help generate basic knowledge about whether disabilities are causally related to delinquency or to processing in the juvenile justice system. They are, more generally, critical for assessing the impacts of virtually any initiative aimed at reducing delinquency among youth with disabilities or ensuring that their needs and federally mandated rights are addressed. It should be emphasized that the lack of consistent definitions and measurements of many key terms—disabilities, delinquency, juvenile justice, programs or interventions, policies, laws— makes summaries or comparisons of existing research difficult and in some cases impossible.

The vast bulk of research on the children and youth of focus in this report—those with disabilities who are at risk of delinquency or involved in the juvenile justice systems— provides a relatively weak foundation for drawing sound empirical generalizations. For example, one of the only relatively well-studied issues relating to this population is the prevalence of disabilities among incarcerated youth. This research suggests that disabilities, especially learning disabilities and serious emotional disorders, are far more common among incarcerated youth than among youth in schools. Yet this research, too, suffers from inconsistent definitions and measurements. In addition, it provides a weak foundation for making generalizations about youth in other parts of the juvenile justice system, including probation, parole, and nonsecure residential treatment facilities. These problems are even more endemic in the other areas covered in this report.

Background

There is a tremendous gap in empirically based knowledge about children and youth with disabilities, especially those who are either at risk of delinquency or involved in the juvenile justice system. This gap covers a wide spectrum of largely unanswered questions involving distinct sets of policy issues. These issues range from the potentially conflicting philosophies underlying existing laws to what is known about effective prevention, intervention, and delinquency management strategies and efforts to ensure that the rights and needs of children and youth with disabilities are addressed. The objectives of this report cover distinct sets of policy relevant questions that parallel areas in which significant gaps currently exist.

The report asks, for example, to what extent the philosophies of disability law and juvenile justice policies are contradictory or complementary. How, if at all, are disabilities linked to delinquency, and how are disabilities linked to juvenile justice system involvement, irrespective of any possible causal relationship between disabilities and delinquency? Are the causes of delinquency the same for youth with disabilities and those without disabilities?

From the standpoint of policies for reducing the number of youth with disabilities in the juvenile justice system, what exactly is the need for such policies? For example, what is the prevalence of youth with disabilities throughout all stages of the juvenile justice system? If youth with disabilities are overrepresented in the justice system, is this in any way linked to school-based practices and programming? How might the racial/ethnic dimensions of delinquency and juvenile justice processing contribute to a greater involvement of youth with disabilities in the juvenile justice system?

From a related policy standpoint, what exactly is the needs/services gap? What, for example, are the current or anticipated types and levels of programming for youth with disabilities who are at risk of delinquency or who are involved in the juvenile justice system, and how do these levels differ from the amount of demand for them? Regardless of any gap, what are effective prevention, intervention and treatment, and delinquency management strategies for this population? Are federal laws effective in facilitating the identification of and provision of services to them? More generally, what are the barriers to and facilitators of implementing effective strategies for addressing their needs, and what are the next steps that should be taken to improve knowledge and practice?

The review for this report suggests partial answers to some of these questions. It also reveals that few systematic overviews of these diverse questions have been conducted. Most studies have investigated delimited parts of each question. The present report thus fills an important void by highlighting the wide range of questions and issues that policymakers, practitioners, and others may want to consider as they create and evaluate new programs and policies or pursue specific research agendas.

Data and Methodology

Three sources of information were used for this report: a review of empirical research, focusing primarily on existing reviews of particular issues; interviews with knowledgeable stakeholders; and case studies of particular programs. The review uncovered no new facts but rather summarized what existing research says about each of the report's seven objectives. The scope of the report dictated taking a broad-based approach rather than providing an in-depth analysis of any one issue or identifying and analyzing information from specific jurisdictions. It thus focused on materials that were readily available; as a result, some sources that may speak directly to some of the issues in this report may have been missed. In addition, many of the questions addressed in this report might be better addressed through a series of in-depth studies that involve the collection and analysis of data from diverse sources. Although the review identified few such readily available data sources, they may well exist and provide a more solid empirical foundation for assessing the questions reviewed in this report.

It should be emphasized that the traditional focus of the juvenile justice system has been to serve the "best interests" of youth. To this end, even in the recent era of "get tough" policies, many juvenile justice systems retain a broadbased orientation aimed not only at preventing and reducing delinquency but also at addressing the diverse needs of at-risk youth and young offenders. Therefore, when examining the state of programming for youth with disabilities in the juvenile justice system, the report reviewed delinquency intervention programs and policies, as well as disability-related programming efforts that are required by law. This approach was indicated as well because there is relatively little empirical information available on levels and types of programming in juvenile justice systems.

Findings

The results of the review and interviews are summarized along seven dimensions, collectively addressing the goal and objectives of this report. The overarching finding was that considerably more empirical research is needed. The report documented, for example, that there is relatively little quality research on almost every dimension that was examined, from the prevalence of disabilities at various stages of the juvenile justice system to the levels and impacts of federal efforts to enforce compliance with disability law. However, it also identified many practices and policies that schools, communities, and the juvenile justice system can undertake that may have a significant impact on preventing and reducing delinquency among children and youth with disabilities and that may help ensure that their disability-related needs are addressed.

The broad-based findings and conclusions from the review and interviews are summarized below. More systematic and complete discussions of these and other findings are provided in the report, which includes figures and tables as well as highlighted sections with the observations and recommendations made by individuals interviewed for this report.

Current Laws and Philosophical Frameworks

  • Federal disability law—including Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)—requires that youth with disabilities receive services to address their disability-related needs. These rights extend to youth in the juvenile justice system. The Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act (CRIPA) gives the U.S. Department of Justice the authority to enforce these and other laws protecting youth with disabilities in juvenile justice facilities.
  • The first juvenile courts in the United States were established over 100 years ago and focused on the "best interests" of youth, providing for both punishment and rehabilitation of youth. During the past several decades, juvenile justice systems became increasingly "tough on crime," placing greater emphasis on punishment. As a result, few juvenile justice systems place a high priority on or have the resources to provide treatment or rehabilitation, including those needed by youth with disabilities.
  • Despite calls for greater prevention and early intervention initiatives in schools and the juvenile justice system, there is little evidence that past, current, or proposed laws will suffice to create this change or to overcome the many conflicting perspectives about youth with disabilities or young offenders. Consequently, there is little foundation at present to suggest that youth with disabilities who may enter or are already in the juvenile justice system are having or will have their needs adequately addressed.
  • There are many opportunities for improving both research and practice. However, the existence of such opportunities by themselves is insufficient to result in a change in the levels and quality of programming and enforcement of juvenile justice and disability law. For a sustained, systematic, and comprehensive approach to understanding and effectively addressing the needs of youth with disabilities, a wellfunded and -coordinated federal initiative likely will be necessary.

Disability, Delinquency, and Juvenile Justice

  • Establishing the precise relationship between disability, delinquency, and juvenile justice has proven difficult because of considerable variation in how "disability" is defined and measured by schools, the juvenile justice system, and researchers.
  • Relatively little sophisticated research has directly addressed how exactly, if at all, disabilities contribute to delinquency. Some research suggests there may be a causal relationship between disability and delinquency, but most research to date suggests there is not.
  • Different theories exist—but none enjoys consistent empirical support—to account for why youth with disabilities in the juvenile justice system appear to be overrepresented relative to the proportion of youth with disabilities in the general population. Some theories suggest the overrepresentation may result from these youth being more likely to engage in delinquency. Others suggest that overrepresentation may result from differential school and law enforcement targeting of youth with disabilities and then differential processing once they have entered the juvenile justice system. Such differences can become self-reinforcing if youth with disabilities who are formally processed are more likely than other youth to recidivate or to be further targeted by schools and law enforcement agencies.
  • Anecdotal accounts suggest that youth with disabilities are at increased risk for involvement in the juvenile justice system. However, relatively little empirical evidence documents this risk. The one clear exception is overrepresentation in long-term custodial facilities. Here, research consistently suggests that youth with disabilities are overrepresented in correctional settings and that this results from differential targeting and processing of this population. Some estimates suggest that 10 percent of youth in correctional facilities have specific learning disabilities (SLD), while others suggest that the percentage is closer to 36 percent. Estimates of the prevalence of emotional disturbance (ED) range upwards of 50 percent. For serious emotional disturbance (SED), estimates run as high as 20 percent. Up to 12 percent of incarcerated youth are mentally retarded. Studies suggest that attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is four to five times more prevalent in correctional facilities than in schools. Between 20 and 50 percent of incarcerated youth are estimated to have ADHD. Research suggests that learning disability and emotional disturbance are the most common types of disabilities among youth in correctional settings.
  • Available research provides little systematic documentation about overrepresentation of youth with disabilities (of various types) in other parts of the juvenile justice system, including probation, non-custodial placement, and aftercare/parole.
  • Some research and anecdotal evidence suggests that as schools have become more restrictive and punitive (e.g., zero tolerance approaches to misbehavior), they have pushed greater numbers of youth with disabilities into the juvenile justice system. Many observers speculate that the failure of many schools to implement federal law, especially IDEA, fully and consistently has contributed to this process.
  • Determining how exactly disabilities are linked to delinquency and to involvement in the juvenile justice system is critical for developing effective programs. For example, if disability-related behaviors contribute to delinquency, then programs should target these behaviors. However, if school officials and teachers, law enforcement agents, or court practitioners are more apt to misinterpret or place greater emphasis on disability-related behaviors—even when these behaviors do not contribute to delinquency—then programs should focus on educating these different stakeholder groups.

Risk and Protective Factors Associated with Delinquency

  • Many risk and protective factors, including biological, psychological, peer, family, socioeconomic, community, school, and situational factors, may contribute to or reduce delinquency. Many of these same factors are linked to disabilities as well and may be malleable (i.e., changeable through universal, selected, or indicated programs or policies). Research suggests that poverty status and family structure are among the most critical factors predicting childhood disability.
  • It is possible that youth with disabilities may have unique characteristics or face unique conditions that influence their pathway to delinquency and other behavioral outcomes. However, the conventional risk and protective factors associated with these outcomes appear to apply equally well to both groups of youth.
  • It is unclear whether disability-related factors (e.g., behaviors resulting from specific disabilities, or the responses of others to these behaviors) exert an independent impact on delinquency. More likely, based on the few empirical studies to date, is the possibility that disability-related behaviors may result in differential involvement and processing in the juvenile justice system.

Program and Policy Trends

  • Few local, state, or national organizations maintain consistent or reliable records of the types and levels of services or funding of programs that focus on youth with disabilities who are at risk of entering or involved in the juvenile justice system.
  • Most sources suggest that many schools are not providing youth with disabilities legally required services. The needs/services gap appears to be even greater in the juvenile justice system, where the primary focus is on sanctioning youth for their delinquent behavior, not on providing services. Systematic, empirical documentation of these gaps does not currently exist or is not readily available.
  • Racial/ethnic minorities, including Native American youth, are overrepresented at most stages of the juvenile justice system and among the population of youth with disabilities. Yet there is little evidence that juvenile justice systems are providing appropriate disability-related programming for this population, or that they have developed culturally appropriate approaches for these youth.
  • Despite calls for significant prevention and early intervention efforts in schools and the juvenile justice system, this review found little evidence that such efforts are widespread. The absence is notable because research suggests that such programming may be the only effective method for reducing the involvement of youth with disabilities in the juvenile justice system, especially in the "deeper end" of the system (e.g., correctional facilities).
  • A range of increasingly popular intervention strategies and trends exist in schools and the juvenile justice system. Although some explicitly focus on youth with disabilities, many more diffusely focus on youth with behavioral problems. The more popular disability and delinquency intervention strategies and trends include positive behavioral support treatment, alternative education, diversion from the juvenile justice system, restorative justice, specialized youth courts, and greater intra- and interagency information sharing.
  • The increasingly common strategy for processing and managing delinquents in the juvenile justice system involves the use of sentencing guidelines and graduated sanctions. For chronic and serious delinquents, the most common strategy involves the transfer of youth to the adult justice system. These approaches are not always punitive. However, research suggests that they lead to a focus on offense-based rather than youth-based sanctioning, which in turn may lead to a greater focus on punishment than treatment or services for disability-related or other needs.

Effective Practices and Criteria/Measures of Effectiveness

  • Researchers have not systematically identified and assessed interventions or practices that focus primarily on youth with disabilities who are at risk of delinquency or are involved in the juvenile justice system. As a result, there remains little scientific basis for recommending specific programs for these youth.
  • A review of research suggests that principles of effective practice, as well as promising or best practices identified for delinquents, may be appropriate and effective for youth with disabilities. The report identifies these principles, as well as some drawn from the more general disability literature. It illustrates several of the leading examples of prevention, intervention, and delinquency management strategies that are most likely to ensure that youth with disabilities reduce their involvement in delinquency and receive the services to which they are legally entitled.
  • Effective programming must take into account the precise needs of each youth, including their racial/ethnic and cultural backgrounds and the needs associated with their specific disabilities. At the same time, it must be tailored to the specific stage of the juvenile justice system. For example, efforts to divert first-time offenders from the juvenile justice system necessarily will differ from those that aim to integrate youth released from long-term incarceration back into communities and schools.
  • The variation in types of programs and stages of the juvenile justice system means that no one set of criteria or measures can be used to assess the effectiveness of a program or policy targeting youth with disabilities, including prevention efforts in schools. However, most programs' and policies' long-term goals are to increase and improve required services to youth with disabilities, to improve the behavior and functioning of youth with disabilities in schools and the juvenile justice system, and to eliminate unfair treatment of youth with disabilities by both sets of institutions.

Implementation of Disability Law and Programs: Barriers and Facilitators

  • There have been many documented challenges associated with fully implementing disability law in schools. Some observers point to the lack of clear guidance about what exactly full compliance with disability law would entail. Others highlight the lack of sufficient funding or commitment.
  • Any challenges to implementing disability law in schools are magnified in the juvenile justice system, where there is little understanding of disabilities or disability law, and where few resources exist to adequately address the needs of youth with disabilities.
  • Most researchers and observers of disability law and juvenile justice state that greater communication, cooperation, and collaboration is needed among schools, the juvenile justice system, and other childserving agencies to effectively address the needs of youth with disabilities in the juvenile justice system. However, the report found little evidence that communication, cooperation, or collaboration currently are occurring to any substantial extent. Whether owing to conflicting orientations, resources, or other factors, the result appears to be an inefficiently interconnected set of systems that fail to provide disability-related services to the youth who need them.
  • The report identified many barriers and facilitators to implementing federal disability law and effective programs for youth with disabilities in schools and the juvenile justice system. An effective strategy for serving youth with disabilities and addressing their specific needs likely will require systematically addressing both the larger barriers (e.g., intersystem collaboration) and the many specific barriers (e.g., lack of awareness among juvenile justice practitioners of the rights and needs of youth with disabilities).

Recommendations for "Next Steps"

  • The report found that significant strides have been made in enforcing disability law, but the extent of enforcement remains unknown. There also is little empirical evidence documenting the success of legal actions (e.g., court cases) in increasing compliance with disability law, whether in the jurisdictions in which the actions originate or elsewhere. Research on the extent and impacts of enforcement efforts thus is needed.
  • There is a need to identify a range of strategies to enforce and promote compliance with disability law. Effective strategies are needed as well to increase effective programming for youth with disabilities in schools and in juvenile justice settings.
  • Increased funding to schools and the juvenile justice system is needed to ensure that youth with disabilities receive appropriate services. However, many sources indicate that without a systems-level focus on increasing the understanding of and commitment to youth with disabilities in the juvenile justice system, the increased funding will have little impact. Some individuals interviewed for this project recommend the creation of a national commission whose sole responsibility is to advocate for this population.
  • There currently is no single federal agency or advocacy organization whose sole focus is to ensure that the rights and needs of youth with disabilities entering or in the juvenile justice system are addressed. The Coordinating Council on Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention and the President's Task Force on disadvantaged youth may be well suited to provide the direction and leadership to address this gap by helping to create a national commission focused explicitly on youth with disabilities at risk of entering or already in the juvenile justice system.
  • Research is greatly needed across virtually every area involving youth with disabilities who are at risk of delinquency or are involved in the juvenile justice system. Such research should focus on establishing the true prevalence of youth with disabilities of different types among at-risk populations in schools and across all stages of the juvenile justice system; the needs/services gap, including compliance with disability law; the causes of overrepresentation (where it exists) of youth with disabilities in the juvenile justice system, especially correctional facilities; and effective systemslevel and program-level approaches, including federal laws, for addressing the needs of these youth, including particular attention to the types of programming most effective for youth from diverse racial/ethnic and cultural backgrounds. This research should capitalize on opportunities available through ongoing as well as future evaluations and should systematically include disability-related measures.
  • At present, there is no established body of scientific research on the effectiveness of programs and policies aimed at preventing or reducing delinquency among youth with disabilities, or on the effectiveness of these efforts for ensuring that the needs of youth with disabilities in the juvenile justice system are addressed. Thus, a comprehensive assessment should be taken to determine which programs and policies are most effective in schools, communities, and the juvenile justice system. At the same time, a balanced approach to funding diverse programs and policies, coupled with evaluation research studies of their effectiveness, is indicated. This approach will ensure that a more definitive body of knowledge can develop to determine "what works" and for whom.

Implications

This review has many implications for research and policies focused on children and youth with disabilities who are at risk of delinquency or justice system involvement, or who are already involved in the juvenile justice system. The challenges are numerous, but in almost all instances the need for more and better research is clear. Which areas should be prioritized must ultimately be determined by policymakers and practitioners. Clearly, a more complete and accurate portrait of the kinds of disabilities present among youth referred to the juvenile justice system is needed. At the same time, research is needed on the extent to which youth with disabilities are having their needs addressed at all stages of the juvenile justice system. Research is needed as well on effective programming. Which areas require greater attention can only be determined by the priorities of specific stakeholders (e.g., schools, probation departments, correctional facilities, communities). However, advances in knowledge in any of these areas likely will contribute to a greater ability to decrease delinquency among children and youth with disabilities, to ensure that the needs of these children and youth are effectively addressed, and to enhance positive physical, mental, educational, and other life outcomes among this population.


Note: This report is available in its entirety in the Portable Document Format (PDF).




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