AUSTIN, Texas—A new study has found dramatic disparities in the way mental health assessments are performed on offenders within Texas’ juvenile justice system, and has recommended ways to improve the process.
These assessments greatly impact a juvenile’s future because they are used by the courts to help determine whether that juvenile’s actions are associated with clinical mental disorders for which they could receive treatment, or by other factors.
The study, conducted by the Center for Criminology and Criminal Justice Research and funded by the Hogg Foundation for Mental Health, both units of The University of Texas at Austin, indicates a lack of uniformity among local juvenile courts in conducting and interpreting mental health assessments during the initial intake process.
Reasons cited for these variations include a generally poor understanding of objectives and applications of the assessment process and its tools; a wide disparity in the levels of education, experience and training of those conducting the assessments; a paucity of counseling and treatment resources; and a serious concern among practitioners about the reliability and validity of the standardized assessment tools.
Issues raised by the survey are important, since decisions based on these assessments largely decide whether juvenile offenders experiencing mental or behavioral disorders will receive appropriate mental health or rehabilitative services. In fact, the future of a vast majority of juveniles is determined by the screening, assessment and referral process with juvenile court intake units. These intake units are commonly composed of probation officers and caseworkers responsible for examining each case and recommending to the court whether to dismiss charges, issue warnings, conduct further clinical assessments, refer to appropriate treatment programs or pursue prosecution and incarceration.
This survey comes two years after the Texas Legislature required juvenile probation departments to conduct risk and needs assessments of all juvenile offenders coming before juvenile courts. In response to this mandate, the Texas Juvenile Probation Commission developed the Standard Assessment Tool (SAT) to evaluate juvenile offenders. Currently, all jurisdictions report using the SAT or an authorized alternative in either assessing needs or guiding case management decisions.
The study was conducted earlier this year by Daniel Mears, post-doctoral research fellow with the Center for Criminology and Criminal Justice Research and former Hogg Foundation Evaluation Research fellow. It relied upon three sources of data: in-depth interviews with, and observations of, juvenile probation staff of the Travis County Juvenile Court; interviews with probation officers, prosecutors, judges, defense attorneys, program directors and staff, clinicians, etc. in selected jurisdictions across the state; and a survey of chief juvenile probation officers in Texas. In each instance, the research focused on how and to what extent the needs assessment and referral process is perceived to be efficient and effective.
“What we found was that while most jurisdictions value appropriate assessment and referrals — whether through the SAT or its comparable alternatives — not all are equally well-positioned to provide them,” said William Kelly, professor and director at the Center. “These variations represent a central challenge to developing criteria for evaluating the appropriateness of referrals of juveniles with mental health or other needs.”
Kelly said the findings and recommendations were presented to top administrators of the Texas Juvenile Probation Commission (TJPC). As a result, both the TJPC and the UT Center for Criminology and Criminal Justice Research have indicated an interest in pursuing research aimed at systematically assessing juvenile mental health needs and programming across Texas.
The study notes several findings and recommendations including
- Most jurisdictions view the structure and goals of the intake process differently. These differences largely influence the kinds of mental health assessments they conduct, the timing of the assessments, and how and by whom data from the assessments is used. The study suggests that both the state and local jurisdictions work to clarify the goals of the intake process and then expand upon those goals for local jurisdictions.
- Due to the varied interpretations of the goals of mental health needs assessments — both within and across jurisdictions — state and local officials should clarify the specific goals of assessment and its uses. For example, the goals could include: assisting with detention decisions, providing disposition recommendations, and guiding case management decisions. State and local jurisdictions should consider training practitioners in the uses of the assessments.
- Several practitioners–particularly judges–expressed a deep concern about the validity of the SAT and whether it is being used appropriately and adequately by prosecutors and defense attorneys. It is critical to address such questions, since practitioners’ decisions and recommendations are influenced by whether they trust the assessment tool’s accuracy. The study recommends that state officials conduct a systematic evaluation of the assessment tools to ensure their effectiveness and to increase practitioners’ confidence in their validity, and improve the training of practitioners who conduct them.
- Few of those performing the assessments viewed mental or behavioral disorders as falling along a continuum of severity. Instead they classified disorders with narrow and restrictive definitions of whether juveniles were either mentally competent, insane, suicidal or homicidal. The state should establish broader, more comprehensive criteria for identifying and addressing the mental health needs of juvenile offenders.
- Most respondents emphasized that local jurisdictions need to commit more resources to overcome the considerable lack of mental health programs to treat offenders (e.g., short-term and long-term, day out-patient counseling and treatment, residential placement facilities, parenting classes, family counseling services, sex offender treatment, substance use/abuse treatment).
- Few jurisdictions reported any type of monitoring–apart from occasional informal tracking of select casesæof juveniles referred to mental health services or programs. As a result, few could say whether those referrals were appropriate or effective, much less whether juveniles had even received services. Part of the problem can be attributed to poor communication, cooperation and collaboration among juvenile justice officials and state child and social service agencies.
- The study also identified internal communication problems among court-related practitioners. The study suggests a broader policy of disseminating information from initial intake and clarifying for whom the information is intended.
For additional information, contact Jeff Patterson at the Hogg Foundation, (512) 471-5041 or William Kelly, Ph.D. at the department of sociology, (512) 471-1122.