Ministering to Youth Coming Out of Incarceration

Youth Specialties
September 21st, 2016

Youth incarcerated in juvenile detention centers are undergoing significant stress related to arrest, the uncertainties of their legal issues, and the potential loss of freedom, trust, respect of family and community, and future dreams.

Effective ministry to these individuals should be based on the expected duration of the sentence (30 days vs. 1 year) but should also be focused more on the transition out of incarceration and reintegration back into the community. The better this transition is the greater the likelihood that the youth will not recidivate back into illegal behaviors.

SAMHSA Substance Abuse Treatment for Individuals in the Criminal Justice System identifies the following key factors to consider when helping an individual coming out of incarceration:

Substance Use

  • Substance use history
  • Motivation for change
  • Treatment history

Criminal Involvement

  • Criminal thinking tendencies
  • Current offenses
  • Prior charges/convictions
  • Age of first offense
  • Type of offenses (violent vs. non-violent, sexual, etc.)
  • Number of offenses
  • Prior successful completion of probation/parole
  • History of personality disorders (unlikely if under 18 years of age)


  • Infectious disease (TB, hepatitis, STD, HIV, etc.)
  • Pregnancy
  • General health
  • Acute conditions

Mental Health

  • Suicidality/History of suicidal behavior
  • Any diagnosis of MH
  • Prior treatment/counseling and outcomes
  • Current/Past medication
  • Symptoms
  • Trauma

Special Considerations

  • Education level
  • Reading level/Literacy
  • Language/Cultural barriers
  • Disabilities (physical, intellectual, learning, etc.)
  • Housing
  • Family issues
  • History of abuse (victim and/or perpetrator)
  • Other service providers (counselor, probation officer, social worker, etc.)

This is a long list of issues that require attention.

Remember, you are not alone in service this youth. Partner with others that are investing as well. Establish open communication between you and the others so you do not unintentionally work against each other. Have the other providers train you and your staff so that you can better understand the complexities involved in serving juvenile offenders. The more you can work together with the community the greater the odds are that your youth will overcome the obstacles they are facing.

Here are a few questions for you and your team to begin asking and praying through:

  1. What resources are in your community to address adolescent substance use and mental health? What role can your church or ministry play in supporting those youth with substance use difficulties and mental health?
  2. What pro-social opportunities are available for youth to develop a sense of belonging and purpose? Is your church or ministry considered a place of belonging by these youth in the criminal justice system?
  3. What are the risks involved in reaching out to youth coming out of a correctional facility? What are your fears? Are those legitimate fears or fear built on pre-conceived ideas about these youth?
  4. What are ways you have partnered with individuals attempting to reintegrate after returning from incarceration? What challenged do you foresee?
  5. Does your church have a vision for restoration of youth coming out of the criminal justice system? What does restoration look like in your context? What resources do you have/will you need to begin this work?

My prayer for you and your church or ministry is that God sends you all the kids no one else wants.

The church was created for the mission of being used by God in the restoration of all things. Be that church for these lost boys and girls that are desperate for belonging and purpose. Lean into the discomfort and let Jesus lead you to those on the fringe and let Him surprise you with his power and grace.

chrisChris Schaffner is a certified addictions counselor working with chemically dependent ’emerging adults’ and is also the founder of CONVERSATIONS ON THE FRINGE. CotF is an organization seeking creative and innovative ways to bridge the gap between the mental health community and those entities (particularly schools and churches) that serve youth in contemporary society.

Youth Specialties

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.