Examining Current Challenges in Secondary Education and Transition
February 2005 • Vol. 4, Issue 1
Youth with Disabilities in the Juvenile
Justice System: Prevention and Intervention Strategies
By Pam Stenhjem
Transition planning for youth with disabilities
has not focused extensively on involvement with the juvenile justice
system. Increased attention is needed on the growing number of youth
with disabilities involved in the juvenile and adult correctional
How do communities begin to address the issue of youth with disabilities
who are involved with correctional systems? This brief provides
information on proactive solutions based on restorative justice
and wrap-around services, models, and strategies.
This topic is receiving more attention as research has begun supporting
a critical need for intervention in this area (Burrell & Warboys,
2000; Christle, Jolivette, & Nelson, 2000; National Council
on Disability, 2003).
There is a serious gap between the number of youth with disabilities
in the general population and those who are incarcerated. In 2000,
the Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) reported the prevalence
of disabilities among school-age children in the United States as
9%, compared with a conservative estimate of 32% within the juvenile
justice system (Quinn, Rutherford, Jr., & Leone, 2001). Larson
and Turner (2002) cite research on the incidence and overrepresentation
of youth with disabilities in the juvenile justice system, including
a study done by Otto in 1995 indicating that approximately 90% of
youth in corrections meet the diagnostic criteria for one or more
mental health disorders.
Research explaining underlying causes for this situation is scarce.
Quinn et al. (2002) indicate that criminal behavior has been strongly
linked to a number of factors including dropping out of school,
substance abuse, weak family structure, poverty, and learning and
behavioral disabilities, among others.
A common historical response to the public’s concern with
juvenile delinquency and violence has been to pass legislation promising
stiffer penalties as well as harsher sentences for juvenile offenders
(Leone, Quinn, & Osher, 2002). This reaction is a quick fix
to a serious long-term problem. Research indicates that providing
educational and other supports to youth and their families is a
more effective approach than other more traditional approaches,
such as incarceration (Greenwood, Model, Rydell, & Chiesa, 1996).
Leone et al. (2002) cite research stressing that a single approach
addressing violence and delinquency among young adults doesn’t
work. Targeting only the symptoms of juvenile delinquency has done
little to change juvenile crime rates in the United States. Furthermore,
they suggest that providing services and supports through community-based,
family-focused, and prevention-oriented collaboration is a better
This brief focuses on two models, restorative justice and wrap-around
services, to illustrate proactive intervention for reducing the
number of youth with disabilities incarcerated in juvenile and adult
Model 1: Restorative Justice
One alternative to punishment and incarceration is known as
restorative justice. According to Van Bockern, Kinsley, and
Woodward (2000) and Umbreit (2000), restorative justice has roots
in tribal cultures, such as Native American cultures in the United
States and aboriginal cultures in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.
These cultures have long understood that the needs of both the victim
and community must be considered and addressed before amends can
According to Bazemore and Umbreit (1999), restorative justice is
a new way to think about and respond to crime. It emphasizes one
basic concept: crime damages people, communities, and relationships.
This model holds that justice should focus on repairing the harm
done. A balance must be created between the needs of the victim,
offender, and communities, and each should be actively involved
in the restorative process. Restorative justice is built upon positive
community values and the most effective, documented sanctioning
practices. These include victim-offender mediation, various community
decision-making processes, restorative community service, restitution,
victim and community impact statements, and victim awareness panels.
Restorative justice redefines the way justice systems address public
safety, sanctioning, and rehabilitative objectives with the goal
of reintegrating those affected by wrongdoing (both victim and offender)
back into the community as resilient and responsible members. Umbreit
(2000) lists specific examples of restorative justice initiatives
such as crime repair crews, victim intervention programs, family
group conferencing, victim-offender mediation and dialogue, peacemaking
circles, victim panels that address offenders, victim empathy classes
for offenders, and victim-directed and citizen-involved community
service by the offender.
According to Umbreit (2000), restorative justice policies and
programs are being developed and used in more than 45 states as
well as many other parts of the world, including Australia, New
Zealand, and South Africa. These programs provide higher levels
of victim and offender satisfaction and a greater likelihood of
successful restitution completion by the offender than traditional
justice programs. Research has also shown that restorative justice
programs reduce fear among victims and decrease the frequency and
severity of further criminal behavior among offenders (Umbreit &
Restorative justice offers a proactive alternative for schools
and communities when addressing the involvement of youth with disabilities
in criminal activity. Rather than immediately expelling or suspending
youth from school and driving them into the juvenile court system
and juvenile corrections, restorative justice can be incorporated
into school policies and practices. This creates opportunity for
discussion, review of whether the disability may have been a factor
in the incident, whether the young adult had support needs that
were not being met, and how to make reparations while helping the
young adult to find better alternatives. Schools can promote care
and respect by providing restorative justice processes that allow
for differences to be worked through in a constructive manner (Morrison,
Model 2: Wrap-Around Services
According to Leone et al. (2002), a preferred approach for reducing
juvenile delinquency and crime is providing wrap-around services
and supports through community-based, family-focused, and prevention-oriented
collaboration, rather than incarcerating youth for longer periods
of time. Youth with disabilities as well as other youth within the
juvenile justice system often need a wide range of individualized
support. These services need to be comprehensive, collaborative,
and available within the diverse communities and environments where
these young adults live.
Research sustains the theory that when agencies make a commitment
to collaborate and provide comprehensive services for youth with
disabilities and their families, successful outcomes are often the
result (Jolivette, Stichter, Nelson, Scott, & Liaupsin, 2000;
U.S. Department of Education, 2000; Northwest Regional Educational
The most promising methods to prevent and reduce delinquency include
addressing both risk factors (elements that increase the likelihood
of delinquency) and protective factors (elements that insulate children
considered at risk for juvenile delinquency) across numerous areas
(Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, 1998). Leone
et al. (2002) cite the need for effective collaboration among key
community agencies as a fundamental support for youth at risk for
or engaged in violent juvenile behaviors. Their model is based upon
public health prevention, focusing on early identification, early
intervention after onset, individualized services, and aftercare
within collaborative systems of prevention, treatment, and care.
The following summarizes their findings.
Individual agency services are often weak because they lack the
resources or mandates to provide more comprehensive services. Services
are fragmented as a result of each agency having individual eligibility
criteria, case plans, records, and lack of support to communicate
or coordinate with other agencies. Although the same needs for a
high-risk youth may be identified by all agencies, agencies may
view what is needed differently. This can lead to duplication of
services, multiple assessments, and refusal of new services by the
family due to negative past experiences.
Comprehensive, collaborative, or wrap-around services are critical
to effectively serve youth with disabilities involved with the juvenile
corrections system. Soler (1992) identified five factors of effective
coordinated programs within this context:
- Identification of clear goals and distinct target populations
- Leadership in establishing and implementing programs;
- Working with the entire family, rather than only the young adult;
- Provision of an assortment of services to meet the unique needs
of each individual and family; and
- Case management and coordination that includes active negotiating
and advocacy for needed services.
This study also identified factors that increase collaboration
and coordination and reduce ineffective, fragmented services. These
- Flexible, reliable funding;
- Removal of statutory or regulatory barriers (e.g., categorical
funding, confidentiality requirements);
- Coordination and communication among agencies;
- Interagency conflict resolution processes;
- Inclusion of the private sector to provide services;
- Quality training and support for agency staff;
- Coordinated information collection, management, and access
- Meaningful outcome measures; and
- Support of innovation in service delivery.
Agencies and community partners need to be aware of how collaboration
changes the nature of agency relationships. Collaboration includes
three critical elements:
- Common goals and directions,
- Shared responsibility, and
- Working together to achieve goals.
New methods for coordination on system and agency levels include
three additional elements:
- Organizational transformation,
- Active consumer involvement at all levels, and
- Creation of a holistic system.
Finally, for collaborative efforts to be sustainable and successful,
support is needed at five key levels:
- Agency level: policy makers and leadership,
- Program level: managers and staff,
- Interagency level: among line staff and managers across agencies,
- Professional level: among members of different professions,
- Consumer level: including families and youth as members of
the collaborative structure.
The traditional system of responding after an offense has been
committed with punitive measures does not address the cause of the
behavior or improve the situation for the young adult, family, or
community. The most effective collaborative efforts include a multi-strategy
approach (National Center on Education, Disability, & Juvenile
Justice, 2002). Within this approach, a successful collaborative
- Customized to meet the needs of each individual,
- Customized to meet the needs of the social network where the
- Varied with a range of interventions and degrees of intensity
to address the diversity and different risk factors,
- Flexible and responsive to the community where the problems
- Inclusive of all significant areas of the child’s life
including peers, family, school, and community.
Although there are many obstacles to collaborative service provision,
it can be done. It is a process that occurs over time and requires
the leadership and commitment of agency directors, administrators,
and front-line personnel.
Collaborative programs maximize the potential of all young people
to become productive, law-abiding citizens (Leone et al., 2002):
In essence, instead of focusing only on punishing “those
kids,” these efforts go one step further to identify and
address the individual, family, and societal issues that make
“those kids” (our kids) act in unlawful ways. A community-wide
collaborative effort enhances interventions in several ways and
can change the politics and norms of the community (Bracht &
Kingsbury, 1990), provide consistency of behavioral expectations
across domains, enlist a great number of volunteers, and improve
the likelihood that the interventions will become long term. (p.
The goal of transition planning is to help young adults with disabilities
plan for the future and have control over their own lives. For youth
with disabilities involved with the correctional system, the transition
planning process can be interrupted and even curtailed. The use
of restorative justice and wrap-around service models in addition
to or as part of the transition planning process is a positive,
proactive alternative to suspension, expulsion, and incarceration.
Restorative justice complements transition planning processes currently
Although restorative justice is gaining momentum as an alternative
to incarceration, as with most accountability-based programs, it
is most effective when part of a more comprehensive plan involving
a range of school and community partners. Wrap-around services in
the form of long-term, collaborative partnerships among schools
and community service agencies can fulfill this requirement. Wrap-around
service collaboration is already used within many school systems
to facilitate transition planning. Using a wrap-around approach
within the transition planning process to assist youth with disabilities
involved with the juvenile justice system is a reasonable and achievable
goal for schools and their community partners (Kamradt, 2000).
Larson and Turner (2002) offer additional promising, research-based
approaches for preventing recidivism and reducing delinquency among
youth with disabilities:
- Assessing juveniles to determine specific skill needs in the
social, family communication, psychological, academic, and vocational
- Developing a plan for each juvenile that includes social/behavioral
goals; family, psychological, academic, and vocational goals and
strategies; and monitoring strategies;
- Changing goals as the youth progresses or fails to progress
and ensuring that all service providers as well as family members
understand the new goals;
- Providing youth with opportunities to develop academic, vocational,
and social coping skills;
- Providing counseling to change youths’ attitudes, values,
- Providing social skills training to enhance the development
of positive social relationships;
- Exploring medical intervention to foster normal adolescent
development and the reduction or elimination of symptoms of abnormal
- Connecting youth with effective drug treatment programs; and
- Ensuring family participation in the young adult’s intervention
to preserve positive family relationships and to help with the
transition back into the community.
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Justice and Peacemaking, University of Minnesota
Institute for Restorative Practices
National Center on Education,
Disability, and Juvenile Justice
U.S. Office of Juvenile
Justice and Delinquency Prevention
challenges, hopeful responses: A handbook for professionals working
with youth with disabilities in the juvenile justice system
Author Pam Stenhjem is with the National Center on Secondary
Education and Transition at the University of Minnesota.
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This report was supported in whole or in part by the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs, (Cooperative Agreement No. H326J000005). The opinions expressed herein do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs, and no official endorsement by the Department should be inferred.
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