Mentally Ill Youth in the Legal System

September 14, 2014 Christina Halli

I worry my son will end up in jail. This is ironic because my son is a rigid rule follower. He attends a small college prep high school and plays basketball. He's a good kid. But, he's a good kid with a serious mental illness.

Jail is No Place for a Mentally Ill Child

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), 70 percent of youth in the juvenile justice system have a treatable mental health condition. Incarceration and other punitive programs delay the much needed mental health treatment these kids desperately need. Sometimes involving the legal system makes matters worse.

My son Bob's first encounter with law enforcement happened at the beginning of seventh grade when his severe social anxiety led him to elope from middle school. The police were called and easily apprehended him. He was simply walking home because that is where he felt safe.

Police Treat Mentally Ill Youth Like Criminals

Often mentally ill youth fight the law, delaying treatment. Read how a mother of a mentally ill child deals with the legal system and her mentally ill son.

When I arrived on the scene, my 13-year-old, mentally ill son was face down on a cop car with his hands cuffed behind his back. It was a frightening scene for me to witness. The officer released Bob to me and I drove him back to school with a police escort.

Bob's second meeting with the law occurred during a bipolar manic episode the week before eighth grade graduation. Bob decided to give his girlfriend a tour of his middle school on a Saturday afternoon. The door was locked but opened when Bob pulled hard. The two lovebirds tripped several motion detectors. They were caught by an administrator and a police officer who responded to the alarms.

When I drove up, the officer was completing his report. He asked Bob if he damaged any property in the school. Bob sheepishly admitted he wrote on a white board. My stomach dropped as I imagined profane prose about the principal and her staff. The officer tried to suppress a grin as Bob said he wrote, "Bob + GF" encircled by a heart.

The next day the principal called to notify me Bob would not be attending the eighth grade field trip. She promptly convened a disciplinary board suspending Bob for the remaining three days of school. Finally, he was not allowed to participate in graduation activities. That hurt like a dagger to my heart.

A week later I received a letter in the mail from the township. Bob was charged with misdemeanor trespassing. I stopped reading when I saw the $300 fine.

We appeared before the judge who was as harsh on Bob as the principal had been. Then the judge said Bob had another option, a diversionary committee. If Bob complied with the committee's directives, the charges would go away.

Diversionary Committees Can Help Youth with Mental Illness

The diversionary committee was comprised of community citizens, educators and business leaders. They listened to Bob, then awarded him 35 hours of community service and asked him to write a 500 word essay about the incident, including why it was wrong and what he learned from it.

Ideally, this committee has a mental health professional on it who refers youth to appropriate mental health treatment.

Two months later we met with the committee again. Bob presented his community service documentation and read his essay. The committee counseled him and let him go.

I'd like to think Bob learned his lesson and will never get in trouble with the law again. But, Bob has a lifelong mental illness. When Bob is ill, his judgement is impaired. When Bob isn't thinking clearly, he is likely to get into trouble with the law again. Which is why I worry my son will end up in jail. And jail is no place for a mentally ill child.

You can find Christina on Google+, Twitter and Facebook.

APA Reference
Halli, C. (2014, September 14). Mentally Ill Youth in the Legal System, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, June 19 from

Author: Christina Halli

Leave a reply