Violent Children: A Juvenile Justice Perspective

Juvenile Justice professionals work with some of the most violent children. Most with serious mental health issues. What is working in the system, what is not and how can juvenile justice work with mental health to offer the best care for these children?

In my October column, I addressed the issue of mental health versus juvenile justice in reference to violent children. This column looked at the what mental health professionals believed was working in their field, what was not working and how they could work better with juvenile justice professionals. In this column, those who work in juvenile justice address the same questions. First, here’s a brief history of the American Juvenile Justice System and an overview of what the current mission is.


The common law of England played a large role in the establishment of laws and the justice system in the United States. In common law, a criminal act was clearly defined. To hold someone accountable for a crime, essentially to punish them under our justice system, the person must have the intent to commit a crime and must commit an unlawful act. Under the first component, a line was drawn between those who fully understood one’s actions and those who did not. Without full understanding, a crime could not be committed. This definition allowed the budding American legal system to differentiate between adult and juvenile offenders recognizing the need to determine if a person understood the difference between right and wrong.

In 1899, the first juvenile court was established in Cook County (IL). Within 25 years, most states had set up a juvenile court system. The main purpose of these courts was rehabilitation rather than punishment. Juvenile courts function under the legal doctrine of parens patriae (parent of the country) meaning the state is tasked with acting as the guardian and in the best interest for those in its care.


A quick look at the mission of most juvenile justice agencies throughout the U.S. shows the original purpose of the juvenile system is alive and well. Most incorporate the need to keep the public safe, hold juveniles accountable and at the same time offer services and support to juveniles. Here are some examples:

(Indent) Maintaining public safety while providing rehabilitative services to the state’s most violent and chronic juvenile offenders (Texas Youth Commission)

Administer justice through the comprehensive delivery of service to children and families, victims of crime and the community so that: children reach their full potential; victims of crime are restored; and families and the community function in the best interest of children (The Judicial Branch of Arizona, Maricopa County, Juvenile Court)

To protect the public through a balanced approach of accountability and comprehensive services that prevent and reduce delinquency through partnerships with families, schools, communities, law enforcement, and others, while providing opportunities for delinquent youth to become responsible and productive citizens (Virginia Department of Juvenile Justice)

What Works

So, in light of the history and mission of the juvenile justice system, it appears professionals are tasked with recognizing the difference between adult and juvenile offenders, maintaining public safety, holding juveniles accountable for their actions and providing opportunities for rehabilitation. Although many outside juvenile justice see the system as purely retributive, punishment-driven, this doesn’t appear to be an accurate statement of the system as a whole. Tasked with handling the most violent of juvenile offenders, justice professionals must balance the needs of the community with the needs of the child. Like mental health professionals, juvenile justice professionals state the most important element in helping these children is recognizing mental health issues play a large role in their behavior. Currently, this is a component working in the juvenile justice system.

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