Commentary: Mentally ill kids shouldn’t languish in juvenile halls
By Assemblymember  and , Chief Probation Officer, Santa Clara County

California’s mentally ill children need clearer laws when going through the juvenile court system.

Most everyone is familiar with a phrase we often hear on TV shows or used in high profile criminal cases – “incompetent to stand trial.” 

But what does this determination really mean for public safety and the treatment of those with mental illness?

For adults in California, it means they cannot go through the traditional criminal justice system because they are found to have a mental illness, developmental disability, or other condition that results in the inability to meaningfully understand court proceedings, the charges against them, or how to work with counsel in their defense.

When adults are found incompetent, there is clear, prescriptive law in California that outlines the process and procedures of what is called “remediation.”  This means they receive the needed mental health services to determine if their competency can be restored.  If their competency cannot be restored, instead of going through conventional trials, they are found placements that balance public safety with the needs and services required for those who have mental or developmental health needs.

However, currently in California, people under 18 are not afforded the same clear laws, guidelines and rights.  While competency laws exist for juveniles suffering from mental illness, there are no clear, prescriptive guidelines for juveniles on the delivery and duration of services like those that exist in the adult system.

Because of this gap in the law, these very vulnerable children languish in juvenile halls, unable to receive the mental health treatment they desperately need. In fact, if deemed incompetent, youth can be housed in juvenile halls for longer than they would have served a sentence for their original offense.

This reality in our juvenile justice system is a travesty that neither improves public safety nor serves the youth in need of help.

Juvenile halls are not an appropriate long term placement to house these children. Juveniles suffering from serious mental health issues or developmental disabilities must be provided services and treatment in a more appropriate, therapeutic long-term setting. Additionally, these youth need appropriately trained behavioral health clinicians providing their needed services.

Assembly Bill 935, authored by Assemblymember Mark Stone and sponsored by the Chief Probation Officers of California, improves the outcomes of youth that go through this system.

AB 935 establishes clear timelines and processes for the determination of juvenile competency in court proceedings and the evaluation and delivery of remediation services for juveniles. AB 935 clearly lays out who must provide the mental health treatment for remediation and puts a cap on how long youth can stay in juvenile halls. It requires the arrangement of alternative mental health treatment and remediation services administered by county mental health departments.
For adults suffering from mental illness, there is a clear and structured process that not only balances the need for public safety but also clearly delineates who provides mental health treatment for these individuals and where they should receive them. It is time California gives our children the same rights and laws to help protect everyone with mental illness in our justice system. AB 935 is overdue and must be passed to make our juvenile justice system better serve kids suffering with mental illness.

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