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Volume 4 , Issue 1 Date: Spring 2004 Topic: Youth with Developmental Disabilities and the Juvenile Justice System

Juvenile Justice and Developmental Disabilities

by Simon I. Singer

Systems of Juvenile Justice
Juvenile justice is a highly complex, loosely coupled system of governmental control. Juvenile justice is hardly a system in the dictionary sense of the word. The center of juvenile justice is not the juvenile court for there are many centers in which juvenile justice is administered through intake and diversion. Some of these diversionary programs may be particularly appropriate for developmentally disabled youth. But there are other concerns to juvenile justice that may prevent disabled youth from receiving the kind of treatment they need. This is because juvenile justice has lost its treatment-oriented focus as it no longer is centrally organized around the juvenile court and its initial objective of pursuing the “best interests” of the child. Instead, juvenile justice exists in a variety of punishment and treatment-oriented organizational settings. For example, juvenile justice exists in criminal courts where criminal justice officials must deal with transferred juveniles as if they were adults (Singer 1996). This is just one example of a long list of legal avenues in which loosely coupled systems of juvenile justice divide troubled and disabled youth into categories of status offenders, delinquents, restricted delinquents, juvenile offenders, or youthful offenders. The exact legal requirements and categories vary from state to state, depending on a state’s history of juvenile justice legislation.

The purpose of this article is to sensitize readers to the reasons juvenile justice systems may be unable to treat appropriately disabled youth. Part of the reason for this inability to treat relates to the juvenile justice objectives. This has produced a great deal of uncertainty in the system, creating conditions in which developmentally disabled youth are too often ignored and treated as if they were ordinary delinquents. Finally, I relate how the juvenile justice system might be changed so that it becomes more centered on the best interests of the disabled child.

Uncertainty in the treatment of disabled youth:
Disability may be considered in the arrest, adjudication, and disposition stages of decision-making. I say may because there is a degree of uncertainty as to how officials should consider physical and mental disabilities. In the case of disabilities, the principle of offense must confront the principle of individualized justice (Matza 1964). A delinquent youth is referred to officials based on some sort of infraction. The disability may be considered related to the infraction. The relevance of individual disability may be considered depending on the seriousness of the offense.

There are many reasons for this uncertainty in juvenile justice and any other complex human service organization. First, there is substantial disagreement as to how best to treat the delinquent. Moreover, there is a certain degree of uncertainty as to the purpose of the juvenile justice system. For prosecutors there is a need to satisfy public demands for justice, while for other officials, particularly mental health officials it is critical that the delinquent’s disability be acknowledged and treated.

The uncertainty in which disabled youth are treated in the juvenile justice system is related to unique bureaucratic routines. The standard operating procedures of juvenile justice systems often render the disabilities of youth of little consequence to legal decision-making. Officials must often rely on a few indicators, such as the seriousness of the offense or the juvenile’s failure to conform to prior dispositional demands. This is particularly the case for disabilities that do not fall into the less visible learning-disabled category.

The less visible signs of disability require a degree of disagnosis that is not automatically available. The diagnosis of disability depends on the system’s capacity to divert juveniles and on parental sponsorship (Matza 1964). By system’s capacity, I mean the way in which there is sufficient mental health and other services to diagnosis a juvenile’s disability. This has a lot to do with the affluence of a particular county of jurisdiction. Certain counties of jurisdiction are in a better position to afford mental health, or school related services that allow officials to diagnosis and service the learning-disabled youth. Too often, the system’s capacity to identify disability is limited. In low-income neighborhoods, the juvenile justice system may be the only way to obtain services for dealing with juveniles as delinquents instead of as disabled. In high-income neighborhoods, not only do parents have the means, but also their communities have the services and the intelligence to avoid the juvenile court and the designated status offender category.

Uncertainty in juvenile justice is further influenced by conceptions of juvenile delinquency and crime. For a long time, early 20th century research focused on the concept of intelligence as a cause of delinquency under the guise of “feeblemindedness.” Delinquency was described as the product of low-intelligence and evolutionary inferiority. That view still persists in the contemporary academic literature (Hirschi and Hindeland 19 ). Delinquents are described as not only low in intelligence, but also low in self-control. They are unable to sit still in school or to deal with their impulses in ways that would prevent them from playing hooky, stealing candy, or living life as a party. The sources of delinquency according to this view, sees every delinquent as emotionally disturbed, abnormal and disabled. Or the sources of delinquency may simply be defined as related to the same indicators of Attention Deficit Disorder.

This image of a homogenous population of delinquents is not only wrong, but is unfair to those youth who have significant disabilities. Delinquents are not low in intelligence, although a significant proportion may score low on tests, and these test scores may be confounded by their disabilities. Delinquents may play hooky, drink, and live life as a party, but it is not because of their disability. Rather such behaviors reflect a culture of adolescence. It is a culture that society perpetuates in varying forms, and it is a culture that modern parents must routinely struggle with in their best attempt to bring their youth safely into adulthood.

Disabled youth have significant problems that go beyond normal adolescent forms of delinquency. Disabled youth are at risk of falling into the deep end of the system, particularly if their disabilities are unrecognized. They may be treated as being disrespectful, resistant to learn by their mistakes, and as incorrigible delinquents. The consequence of official decision-making is to create conditions in which disabled youth are seen as undeserving of treatment.

Why disabled juveniles may appear “undeserving” of treatment:
It would seem that disabled juveniles would automatically fall into the category of delinquents that are deserving of treatment. But this is not a requirement for it is contingent on the system’s capacity to diagnosis a juvenile’s disability. Hidden disabilities often demand a degree of expertise that is often not available. The extent to which systems of juvenile justice can rely on the expertise of professionals requires significant resources. Such expertise is expensive to obtain and often unavailable to the families of impoverished youth. Affluent families are in a better position to seek the private diagnoses of psychologists to determine the treatment-oriented needs of their disabled youth.

The problem of hidden disabilities is not unique to juvenile justice. But in juvenile justice many of the actions of juveniles are not recognized as stemming from a disability. Where the disability is ignored, the actions of the juvenile can be interpreted as involving “criminal intent”. For instance, a juvenile’s “laugh” in the courtroom can be interpreted in two different ways: First, it can be viewed as a sign of disrespect, that the juvenile shows no deference to authority. Or, it may be viewed as a “nervous” laugh, a psychological response to a stressful situation of which the juvenile is lacking significant emotional control. The interpretation of behavior and emotions is the heart of juvenile justice decision-making both at understanding the reason for offensive behavior and for understanding the kind of treatment options that might work to control and prevent future offenses.

Juveniles whose disabilities are ignored will be viewed as undeserving of treatment, while those whose disabilities are made visible will be viewed as deserving of treatment (Miller 1979). There is no simple way to avoid classifying youth into deserving and undeserving categories, although in theory all youth should be considered as deserving of treatment. Decisions must be made and resources are always limited. Officials tend to work with those delinquents that are the most desirable in terms of their abilities to reform. They are the better kids, the more attractive ones, and too often the ones without disability. This is because the system is geared towards success. Probation officers and treatment programs want to show that their programs work. The developmentally disabled youth unless given appropriate levels of treatment can easily be ignored by a system that is geared towards working with “better” kids. However, the better kids are not necessarily those who are without disability. Rather the better kids are organizationally defined to meet the expectations of decision-makers. Again, this is more likely to happen in those communities and families without the resources to diagnosis disabilities, particularly those that are mental and not easily visible.

How can the juvenile justice system be more sensitive to disability?
The problem is not just to make minimum levels of treatment available to all juveniles, but to increase system capacity to confront developmental disabilities. Several steps should be taken to allow juvenile justice officials to become sensitive to juvenile disabilities and juvenile justice. The first is to educate officials as to the research literature on delinquency. There are significant and subtle differences among delinquents that are not easily visible to officials who are in the daily routine of making judgments. The first is to note the group and individual nature of delinquent behavior. The delinquency of disabled youth should look different from that of non-disabled youth. I would expect that non-disabled youth delinquency is more group oriented than delinquency of disabled youth. The second point to consider is the opportunity structures that lead to the delinquent conduct. This includes how schools teach and parents supervise. When we think in terms of opportunity structures, the complexity of relationships need to be examined with respect to degrees of control. Again, some parents and school systems are in a better position to deal with disabilities. Finally, how kids rationalize their delinquent behavior is important to any understanding of juveniles and the manner in which officials must make decisions about their legal status. The rationalization process for a disabled delinquent should look quite different from the rest of the delinquent population.

The ability of disabled youth to invoke their legal rights also needs to be considered. Disabled juveniles may not be able to invoke their due process rights. These due process rights assume a degree of cognition that is questionable by age and is even more questionable in terms of disability. Acceptance of legal rights, such as the right to legal representation and other rights such as to a jury trial in some states, must be understood not only in terms of age and maturity of delinquents, but also in terms of disability. Officials should reconsider how comprehension of rights is related to the arrest, intake, and dispositional stages of decision-making. The expectations that one can understand the legal rights of juveniles must be questioned regularly given the range of abilities and disabilities among youth.

To change the system officials should consider decision-making inside intake and probation offices. These are the less visible parts of juvenile justice that need to be made more visible especially in protecting a disabled juvenile’s right to treatment. One way to make the system more sensitive to the rights of the disabled is to document treatment-oriented objectives within various administrative and agency settings. This documentation should not be for the purpose of adding even more paper work and bureaucracy, but for the purpose of creating a more tightly coupled system of juvenile justice that centers around treatment.

I have only touched the surface here, and my points might be much too general. More is needed in the way of research. However, this is not the familiar call for research in terms of the causes of delinquency. Instead, research is needed on decision-making and how and why disabled juveniles are classified and treated in a particular way. We need to know the specific options that recognize how disability impacts delinquency. This is important in terms of making any dispositional recommendations. A bottom-line question in any comparative evaluation would be to look at how the court’s mental health services compete with the private world of mental health.

Another issue that needs to be taken into account is how officials interpret disabilities in making judgments. It is not clear to what extent disability makes a difference in some cases and not in others. What dispositional alternatives are produced in the wake of a known disability and how do those dispositional alternatives vary from one legal setting to the next? This would require the kind of research that goes beyond a single jurisdiction. The contrast that would be most appropriate would be counties of jurisdiction that vary by income, urbanization, and race. If treatment services are working as they should in the diagnosis and treatment of those with disabilities, then there should be little in the way of county wide variation. But if this is not the case, these variables would be significant. Good policies and theory should be grounded in the research literature. The literature repeatedly shows that there are differences, and these differences are not that same ones that were identified in an earlier history of juvenile justice. They are unique to the times, and to the family, educational, and mental and physical health systems that inevitably touch each juvenile. Those systems need to be examined repeatedly in the context of juvenile justice systems, particularly as they relate to the “best interests” of the juveniles.


Hirschi, Travis, Hindelang. 1977. "Intelligence And Delinquency: A Revisionist Review." American Sociological Review 42 (August):571-87.
Matza, David. 1964. Delinquency and Drift. New York: John Wiley.
Miller, Jerome G. 1979. "The Revolution in Juvenile Justice: From Rhetoric to Rhetoric." In The Future of Childhood and Juvenile Justice, edited by L. T. Empey. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia.
Singer, Simon I. 1996. "Merging and Emerging Systems of Juvenile and Criminal Justice." Law & Policy 18(1 & 2, January/April):1-15.

Simon I. Singer is a Professor in the College of Criminal Justice at
Northeastern University. He teaches courses in criminology and juvenile
justice. In 1999 he received the American Sociological Association's
Distinguished Scholar Award in Crime, Law, and Deviance for his book Recriminalizing Delinquency: Violent Juvenile Crime and Juvenile Justice Reform (Cambridge University Press, 1996).

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