Learning Disabilties and the Juvenile Justice System: Some Food for Thought

Learning Disabilties and the Juvenile Justice System: Some Food for Thought

Imagine what it must be like for a young person with learning disabilities to be apprehended and questioned by the police.

Immediately, your fear and nervousness makes your impairment more acute, and you do a poor job in answering questions. Already looking guilty (perhaps because of your disability) you end up in front of a judge. Now even more anxious and scared, you continue to have difficulty in processing verbal questions, sequencing events, mustering demand language and controlling your impulses. Odds are that no one will ask you if you have a disability or understand what a learning disability is even if you tell them. Regardless of guilt or innocence it will be unlikely that anyone understands your disability, or provides you with accommodations. Your attorney may not even know how to make a mitigating case on your behalf, considering the nature of your impairments.

Research will support the notion that there is a disproportionately high rate of youth with learning disabilities and/or ADHD that come into contact with the juvenile justice system. Prevalence estimates vary considerably because of differences in how the disability is defined and measured, poor screening and assessments in both school and the juvenile justice system, and inconsistent transfer of school records to juvenile court. Precise estimates of specific disabilities vary for the same reasons. Some studies suggest that up to 36 percent of youth in correctional facilities have specific learning disabilities and between 20 and 50 percent of incarcerated youth are estimated to have ADHD.

ADHD is four to five times more prevalent in correctional facilities than in schools.

Between 1993 and 1997, the number of youth with disabilities of any kind in correctional facilities increased by 28 percent. Youth with learning disabilities were more than twice as likely to commit a delinquent offense that their non-disabled peers. Students with learning disabilities were 3.9 times more likely to be arrested while enrolled in school than non-disabled students. There are a number of factors that contribute to the problems encountered by youth with disabilities who are at risk of entering the juvenile justice system. There is a tremendous gap in empirically-based research knowledge about youth with disabilities who are at risk of delinquency or involved in the juvenile justice system.

Juvenile court personnel are not trained in how to identify or serve youth with disabilities. Additionally, criminologists have not examined the problem by addressing it through research, textbooks, or training. Juvenile court intake does not routinely screen for disabilities and relies instead on school records, which are often unavailable or incomplete. School policies and practices may be contributing to an unnecessary and inappropriate flow of youth with disabilities into the juvenile justice system. For example “zero tolerance” discipline policies and enhanced security procedures may all disproportionately target youth with disabilities as well as some No Child Left Behind practices. Juvenile courts themselves are increasingly taking a get-tough policy of punishment rather than treatment.

By 1950 every state had enacted legislation creating juvenile courts. Unlike criminal courts, juvenile court authority flowed from civil law, providing it with jurisdiction over cases involving both criminal and non-criminal behavior. Juvenile court was established with a less formal rehabilitative focus and maintains the best interests of the child with responsibility to act on behalf of abused, neglected or misbehaving children.

Crimes committed by juveniles fall into two broad categories. Criminal offenses are acts that are illegal and would be a crime regardless of the individual’s age. Status offenses are acts that are illegal only when committed by a minor. Disability law is also intended for children involved in the juvenile justice system. Alternative education programs, detention and correctional facilities, juvenile courts, and all juvenile justice programs are required to accommodate to the youth’s disability. IDEA mandates also apply.

It costs between $60,000 and $100,000 to house a youth in a correctional facility for one year.

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