Echoes of the Past: Childhood Incarceration and Adult Health

Law enforcement in the United States arrests 1.3 million youth and children every year. In Montana alone, over 4,000 youth were arrested in 2014. These high numbers make it crucial to learn how involvement with the justice system influences the development and health of these youth. In January, the Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics published a study examining how youth involvement with the justice system relates to their adult health.

Previous studies have shown an adult who was involved with the juvenile justice system as a youth is likelier to experience worse physical and mental health than an adult who was not. This study is the first to look at the relationship between the length of incarceration of a young person and their eventual health as an adult.

The Findings of the Study

The study found that adults were more likely to have worse mental and physical health if they were incarcerated for any amount of time as a youth. Even being incarcerated for less than one month was connected to an increase in the symptoms of depression in adulthood. People incarcerated for longer than a year as a youth are more likely to experience suicidal thoughts as an adult.

Adults who were incarcerated for more than a month as a youth were likelier to have worse overall physical health. Researchers also found a statistically significant increase in the number of adults who reported having such bad health that it limited their ability to climb a flight of stairs among youth incarcerated for longer than one year.

How Do We Fix This?

The researchers made two recommendations for health professionals based on their conclusions. First, prevent youth incarceration by addressing behavioral health issues and the effects of social problems such as abuse, neglect, or an incarcerated family member. Previous studies have shown that when a youth experiences trauma then they are more likely to both be involved with the justice system and to reoffend. For this reason, the importance of behavioral and mental health care for incarcerated youth cannot be overstated. Seventy percent of youth who are incarcerated have at least one psychiatric disorder.

The second recommendation is to mitigate long-term health effects by providing ongoing support for a youth’s mental and physical health during and after incarceration. This support will help prevent them from experiencing the lingering effects of incarceration into adulthood.

This is the reason why partnerships between behavioral healthcare providers, doctors and juvenile probation are so crucial. Enhanced care comes from these partnerships. Providing offending youth behavioral healthcare services like individual therapy, medication management, or substance abuse treatment combined with the accountability offered by the Youth Court system leads to a healthier youth. A healthy youth is less likely to re-offend as a youth and as an adult.

It is a crisis when a youth is incarcerated. But incarceration as a youth does not need be an adulthood crisis.

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