by Cynthia Stadel, Ed.D., LDA Justice Committee

Research shows a disproportionate number of youths in the juvenile justice system have disabilities. This past May, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP), part of the US Department of Justice (DOJ), released a literature review that reported four general types of disabilities common among juvenile justice youth: intellectual disabilities, developmental disabilities, learning disabilities, and emotional disturbances. Prepared by Development Services Group, Inc. (DSGI), the review, titled Youths with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities in the Juvenile Justice System, looked at 37 sources (studies, articles, books, websites) and included emotional disturbances and learning disabilities.

Prevalence and issues

The review cites a 2005 survey of state departments of juvenile corrections by Quinn and colleagues that found the prevalence rate of disabling conditions among youths in state juvenile corrections systems ranged from 9.1 percent to 77.5 percent, with a median rate of 33 percent. More recent research by Zhang and colleagues (2011) showed that youths with intellectual and developmental disabilities tend to commit more serious offenses, entering the juvenile justice system at a younger age.

Slayter (2016) found they also are more likely to be involved in the child welfare system than their peers without disabilities as they are more likely to be abused by parents and guardians than their nondisabled peers. A Bureau of Justice statistical study found they also experience violent victimization at a rate double that of those without disabilities (Harrell, 2016) and are two to three times more likely to be bullied (Twyman et al., 2010).

The authors conclude that promoting equitable educational attainment — aim of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) — is difficult in a correctional setting.  IDEA is designed for an educational setting, and implementation in a correctional environment is complicated by the communication and coordination demands required across the education and justice systems. However, Mears and colleagues (2003) found that early detection, specialized youth courts, positive behavioral support treatment, and increased information sharing across agencies are among the practices that promote better outcomes for youths with disabilities.


The authors argue that non-standardized definitions “pose a significant obstacle to investigating and understanding the full scope of the population of youths with disabilities and their needs” (p. 7). They quote the National Council on Disability, which explained that “Federal legislative acts, professional organizations, social service and health agencies, schools, and various programs employ different terms, define the same terms differently, and use different types of information and approaches to diagnose and classify disabilities”  (DSGI, p. 1).

Intellectual disabilities are classified under the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) as neurodevelopmental disorders that appear prior to 18 years and limit both intellectual functioning and adaptive behavior (including conceptual, social and practical skills). Examples include Down syndrome and fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. Quinn and colleagues found that fewer than 10 percent of those with reported disabilities in the juvenile system had intellectual disabilities (at the time referred to as mental retardation).

Developmental disabilities include mental or physical impairment that occurs prior to age 22 and impacts at least three major life activities (e.g., self-care, receptive and expressive language, learning, mobility, self-direction, capacity for independent living, and economic self-sufficiency). The authors contend that the disabling conditions captured in the 2005 survey by Quinn and colleagues, including specific learning disabilities and emotional disturbances, “are all encompassed by the developmental disability definition” (DSGI, p. 3)           

Learning disabilities are defined in the review as “conditions that affect a youth’s ability to read, write, speak, and calculate numbers,” the definition used by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD). Examples include dyslexia, dyscalculia, and dysgraphia.  Cruise and colleagues (2011) found that approximately one third of youths in long-term secure custody facilities have learning disabilities, compared with 8 percent in the general population.

As defined by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA, 2004), emotional disturbances “are conditions in which a child may exhibit one or more specific characteristics that appear over an extended period and adversely affect his or her ability to learn” (p. 2). They also may impact interpersonal relationships, behavior, feelings, and mood.  Quinn and colleagues (2005) found that approximately 48 percent of the youths identified with a disability in the corrections system had an emotional disturbance.

I found that the lack of definitional alignment across systems impacted the clarity and helpfulness of the review itself. The education system uses the IDEA to categorize disabilities. Intellectual disability, specific learning disability, and emotional disturbances are three of its 13 disability categories; developmental disability is not among them.  In contrast, the health and social service fields define intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) as disorders “that are usually present at birth and that negatively affect the trajectory of the individual’s physical, intellectual, and/or emotional development” (NICHD). Learning disabilities are among the IDDs.

The authors state that the review “does not focus on mental or behavioral health disorders.”  But subsumed under the umbrella “emotional disturbance” are conduct disorder, anxiety disorders, bipolar disorder, eating disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and psychotic disorders (such as schizophrenia). As an educator, I consider these mental or behavioral disorders and turn to mental health professionals for assistance in designing programming for anyone diagnosed with any of them.

Thank you to DSGI and the OJJDP for reviewing the literature— and pointing up the significant work that still needs to be done.

Development Services Group, Inc. 2017. “Youths with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities in the Juvenile Justice System.” Literature review. Washington, D.C.: Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

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