Transforming Juvenile Justice Through the Holistic Power of Multisystemic Therapy

Posted by MST Services

Jul 13, 2023 11:20:42 AM


Although significant strides have been made in improving the juvenile justice experience, there is still room for improvement. While its aim is to prevent youth from engaging in further criminal activities, there may be times when the desired outcomes are not achieved, as many children placed in juvenile detention facilities re-offend after being released.  

It's important to consider that youth who interact with the justice system tend to experience mental health difficulties, substance use, violence-related trauma, and poor academic performance - all factors that increase the risk of reoffending.  

To address these issues and reduce juvenile delinquency, a holistic approach is necessary to tackle the underlying challenges contributing to the problem. 

One such approach is Multisystemic Therapy (MST), which considers the various systems surrounding the child, such as the family, school, peers, and community. By addressing these interconnected factors, MST aims to provide comprehensive rehabilitation and support for young people with emotional, social, and behavioral problems. 

The Limitations of Traditional Juvenile Justice Approaches

The traditional juvenile justice system includes few outcomes. Young people who commit a crime may be placed in a juvenile correction facility, assigned probation, or required to complete community service. In some cases, they may also be placed with an extended family member or placed in foster care.  

All of these outcomes can increase the likelihood of youth displaying mental health symptoms. It is also important to mention that distinct racial disparities come into play here. For instance, studies show that Black youth typically receive more restrictive sentences and are more often formally charged than their White peers, regardless of the offense or previous record. In fact, referrals to juvenile court are three times more likely for Black than for White youth. 

Although recent Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) statistics suggest juvenile delinquency is declining. Still, there are over 43,000 youth in correctional facilities in the United States, and despite these declines, detention rates for Black, American Indian, and Hispanic youth were higher than the rate for white youth. The United States sentences more youth to incarceration confinement facilities than any other country, where youths can be exposed to recurring maltreatment and abuse.   

While research shows high recidivism levels among incarcerated youth, a study across 38 states and the District of Columbia in 2011 found that 70% to 80% of youth who left residential correctional programs were rearrested within two or three years of release. Likewise, 45% to 72% of youth released from juvenile corrections facilities are found guilty of new offenses as a juvenile or an adult within three years of release. 

The National Conference of State Legislatures noted that juvenile incarceration often has negative effects: “Detention that follows arrest of a young person and pending disposition of the case has not only been shown to have negative consequences for some youths, it often is costly and unwarranted for public safety.” 

Juvenile justice aims to rehabilitate at-risk youth and ensure they don’t reoffend, but high recidivism rates show that the current system is failing. A significant factor contributing to this failure is the over-representation of BIPOC and marginalized populations within the juvenile justice system. According to the data from The Sentencing Project, Black youth are 4.7 times more likely than their white peers to be incarcerated. A literature review by OJJDP states that these disparities are due to systemic factors, such as residential segregation and racial profiling. Other research suggests that efforts to understand and address these disparities are essential to improve outcomes for minority youth. Yet the current system doesn’t seem to address the systemic racism experienced by marginalized populations and the underlying factors that increase the risk of youths committing crimes. 

According to a recent meta-review, young people are likely to be re-incarcerated if they experience the following: 

  • family conflict 

  • homelessness 

  • substance abuse 

  • mental disorders 

  • dropping out of school 

Incarceration doesn’t directly address or remedy those underlying issues, nor do measures like probation or community service.  

If juvenile justice aims to rehabilitate young people, it will need to take a more comprehensive approach, addressing the above issues and other social, emotional, and behavioral factors that affect at-risk youth. 

MST’s Holistic Systemic Treatment Approach and How it Applies to Juvenile Justice Reform

MST is a holistic approach to juvenile justice. It’s a well-studied, evidence-based approach that is proven to reduce juvenile recidivism. Holistic treatment means “to provide support that looks at the whole person, not just their mental health needs.” In the context of juvenile justice reform, this approach goes beyond simply addressing the behavioral issues of young people and delves into the root causes of their struggles. 

In holistic therapy, the focus is on treating the whole person and their ecosystem, which includes examining the effects of family, school, peers, and community on a young person’s life. It postulates that understanding the connections between these systems is crucial for creating an effective, individualized treatment plan. 

MST incorporates holistic treatment philosophy into creating personalized interventions for youth involved in the juvenile justice system. These plans focus on creating a strong support system for the young person by strengthening family bonds, empowering caretakers, assessing the impact of peer, school, and community relationships, and developing treatment strategies in collaboration with the family. 

By addressing multiple systems that affect the child, including their family, community, and school, MST becomes customized to each youth and their family’s needs.  

Depending on the individual and family’s needs, MST can include: 

  • individual therapy 
  • family therapy 
  • trauma-informed treatment 
  • drug and alcohol treatment 
  • addressing mental health symptoms and linkages to psychiatric services as needed 
  • collaborating with the educational system to address challenges  
  • parenting skills training 
  • social skills building, including coping skills/anger management 
  • social support enhancements 
  • 24/7 crisis support 

Using a holistic, multi-pronged approach, MST can address the factors that put young people at risk of committing offenses while improving their quality of life. By connecting the various aspects of a youth’s life and providing tailored support, MST offers a comprehensive solution toward reforming juvenile justice. 

The Benefits of MST Treatment for Juvenile Offenders

Multiple studies show that MST leads to a reduction in criminal activity and recidivism, which ultimately benefits the juvenile offender, their family, and the community at large. 

Juvenile offenders who receive MST services experience: 

  • 54% fewer rearrests over a 14-year period 
  • 75% fewer violent felony arrests over a 22-year-period 
  • 54% fewer out-of-home placements

Their families experience: 

  • 40% reduction in sibling arrests 
  • 55% reduction in sibling felony arrests 
  • 94% fewer caregiver felonies 
  • 70% fewer caregiver misdemeanors 

According to research, MST also reduces: 

  • general behavioral problems 
  • substance abuse  
  • involvement with deviant peers  
  • mental health crises 
  • psychiatric hospitalization 
Families and communities that benefit from MST treatment also experience improved mental health and substance abuse outcomes. According to research, youth who receive MST are also more likely to improve their academic performance. Other research shows that MST improves family relations, which is a key mechanism for why MST is so effective. 

MST’s efficacy has been recognized by:  


The National Institutes of Health State-of-the-Science Conference named MST one of only two programs to reduce youth violence and arrests. The University of Colorado Institute of Behavioral Science also endorses MST. Of over 1,400 youth programs, MST is one of only three programs that received a top rating in its Blueprints for Healthy Youth Development program.   


The Wider Impact of MST on Communities and the Juvenile Justice System

MST does not just improve outcomes for individual juvenile offenders and their families but for broader communities.

Crime has an economic effect on communities. Likewise, the processes of arrest, conviction, and incarceration are costly. 

According to the Blueprints for Healthy Youth Development program, MST returns $1.62 for every dollar invested. Another 2014 randomized clinical trial, which looked at the effects of MST over 25 years, found that every dollar spent on MST saved $5.04 for taxpayers and crime victims. 

A study estimated that every dollar New Mexico spent on MST returned $3.34, saving the state $64.2 million over a seven-year period. 

MST has helped over 200,000+ at-risk youths, including juvenile offenders and victims of child neglect and abuse. It has been implemented in 34 states and 15 countries, including the United States, Chile, and the United Kingdom.  

MST’s wide success shows that holistic, system-based approaches can positively impact at-risk youth, reaping benefits for individuals, families, and communities at large.

MST is an evidence-based alternative to incarceration or severe system consequences due to serious externalizing, anti-social, and/or criminal behaviors. MST effectively treats youth and their families by utilizing a built-in suite of interventions within the home, school, and community settings. Treatment is tailored to the family and their individual strengths and needs, which could include but is not limited to the following types of therapies: Family Therapy, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Drug and Alcohol Treatment, Mental Health Services, Peer Ecology Assessment and Intervention, Trauma-informed treatment, and Educational/ Vocational Support. 

If you or someone you know is interested in learning more about Multisystemic Therapy,contact us here. 








Topics: Multisystemic Therapy, Child Welfare, Mental Health, Evidence-Based Programs, Families