Ending the Cycle of Trauma: How Prosecuting Youth as Adults Worsens Mental Health Challenges Among Young People and What We Can Do About It

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Ending the Cycle of Trauma: How Prosecuting Youth as Adults Worsens Mental Health Challenges Among Young People and What We Can Do About It

“The system raised me, and the system failed me,” said Raymond Aguilar at a recent press conference, announcing the publication of a new report highlighting the public health outcomes of trying youth as adults.  Mr. Aguilar, a youth advocate, was prosecuted as an adult during his mid-teen years; he spent 26 years in prison.  He, along with several other men who were tried in adult court as minors and spent many years incarcerated in adult facilities, spoke of the traumatic experiences they endured while incarcerated and during their childhoods, long before they were arrested.  They also reflected on how those experiences affected their mental and emotional health.  For example, Mr. Aguilar entered foster care early in life, as his parents had substance use issues.  “No one ever asked me if I was suffering.  I suffered every day, and a part of me still hurts,” he said.

Mr. Aguilar further described the trauma he endured in prison as a young person.  He was locked in “the SHU” (solitary confinement) 23 hours per day during most of his sentence and endured significant turmoil as a result, noting the high rates of suicide among juveniles convicted as adults “because of the mistreatment that they’re going through in adult prison.”

The mother and the public defender of a young man named Christian, who was directly filed in adult court at age 14 in 2014, also spoke at the press conference.  Christian’s experiences of extreme paternal abuse, witnessing violence daily, and his associated mental health challenges—including depression and thoughts of “not wanting to live”—were never appropriately addressed.  Tragically, like so many other youth in Christian’s shoes, it was not until he was arrested for a crime and incarcerated that his mental health needs were given more thought.

The recent report confirms the experiences of Mr. Aguilar, Christian, and their families.  For example, according to the report, system-involved youth experience atypically high incidences of trauma, and because of poverty, racism, and divestment from their communities, access to mental health and other necessary supports are limited or nonexistent.  Additionally, the report describes how incarcerated youth experience higher rates of unmet mental health needs than the general youth population in the U.S.

The report also discusses a study, which showed that youth prosecuted “as adults who receive prison sentences are significantly more likely to have one or more psychiatric disorder than youth tried as adults who remain in juvenile facilities.”  Moreover, the report finds that mental health programming does not exist for youth incarcerated in adult facilities and is inadequate in most juvenile facilities.  This “‘forgotten mandate’” of mental health care for justice-involved young people is especially problematic for youth sentenced to adult facilities, given their vulnerability to abuse perpetrated against them by older inmates and guards.  According to the report, “[y]outh are 36 times more likely to commit suicide in an adult jail than in a juvenile facility.”

While the mental health and overall outcomes of youth tried as adults appear bleak, the report offers solutions that advocates can pursue to change these disheartening statistics.  For example, it recommends increasing the use of peer-mentoring and culturally sensitive wraparound services for young people.  Additionally, an adolescent mental health expert interviewed for the report opined: “‘There needs to be a lot of education with judges, especially with judges that are working in the juvenile justice courts.  Understanding developmental stages, understanding trauma, understanding mental health aspects, family stressors.  There needs to be a shift in the type of training that they get – even the attorneys [and] law enforcement.’”

Another solution that youth allies should implement is ensuring that all Medi-Cal eligible youth who need it receive Katie A. services.  The Katie A. lawsuit, settled in 2011, established three types of intensive, therapeutic, and community-based services, which were originally limited to a subclass of foster youth and aimed to stop the endless cycling of foster youth through congregate facilities and institutions.  In 2016, however, the State declared that all Medi-Cal eligible young people, including probation youth, who meet medical necessity for Katie A., must receive such services under federal law.

Despite the State’s announcement, most California counties are not implementing Katie A. for juvenile justice youth and other vulnerable young people who would likely be eligible and benefit from these services.  Fully embracing Katie A. for justice-involved youth presents a meaningful opportunity to change their life trajectories for the better and prevent them from being prosecuted as adults.

As long as California continues to have a system of transferring youth to adult court, advocates will need to explore ways in which to prevent that from happening.  Adequately addressing the mental health needs of juvenile justice youth and other at-risk young people earlier in life will be critical to ending the prosecution of youth as adults and all of the harmful outcomes that result from this harsh, ineffective practice.

About the Author:

Nisha Ajmani
Nisha is a Staff Attorney & Policy Advocate at Young Minds. She is passionate about advocating on behalf of young people and utilizing the policy, legal, and court arenas to improve outcomes for at-risk youth.