Opinion: The Reality of Punishing Teenagers


By Jesse Kelley

Being a teenager is the worst. For teenagers, everything is changing — both physically and emotionally. Moreover, these young people are confronted with some of the most intense situations in life: discovering heartbreak, experiencing worry, suffering low self-esteem and working to avoid peer pressure along the way.

Teens are often moody due to hormonal and physical changes that happen during puberty, and when mental health issues become involved, it can be difficult to discern “normal teenage behavior” from the symptoms of depression, anxiety and other emotional troubles.

When passionate responses to teenage-angst are exacerbated by mental health problems, youth sometimes act out criminally. Of the 2 million young people touched by the juvenile justice system each year, between 65 percent and 70 percent have a mental health disorder.

For those young people involved with the criminal justice system, detention and incarceration only make matters worse. Particularly in those states where young people can be held in adult facilities, the strain of being placed in isolation — as well as the fear experienced during incarceration generally — can intensify mental health issues.

In order to rehabilitate justice-involved youth with mental health issues, judges and juvenile probationers must limit their use of detention — especially when it involves incarcerating teens in adult facilities — and opt for community-based rehabilitation or diversion programs whenever possible.

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