New court program helps teen offenders with mental health problems
This innovative court recommends therapy and medication instead of incarceration for some teens.
He was a fighter. In fact, he got into fights all the time in juvenile hall. His mother blamed the fights on someone else. Counselors worked with the teen and taught him alternatives, like counting to 10 before blowing his stack. Then someone tried to fight him.
"So what does he do?" said Judge Clifford L. Klein. The Los Angeles Superior Court Judge who presides over the nation’s first Juvenile Mental Health Court retold the story with a slight smile on his face.
"Well, he counted to 100 instead of fighting," Klein said. The teen’s mother said the reason her son hasn’t gotten into any fights is because he’s not in juvenile hall.
But Klein disagreed. "If he wants to fight, there’s plenty of people he’ll get into fights with. He’s doing it on his own. He acknowledged there’s a problem and it’s an acknowledgement of his success."
The teen in Klein’s story attends Juvenile Mental Health Court, inside Eastlake Juvenile Hall in East Los Angeles. It’s a new type of juvenile court and is considered the nation’s first court to focus on mental illness and its relationship to juvenile crime. People have their eyes on this court and are waiting to hear how it does. Soon there could be mental health courts for juveniles in other cities.
Juvenile Mental Health Court looks at juvenile crime as a symptom of mental illness. Until this court opened, this was often overlooked in the courtroom. About 30 to 40 percent of juvenile offenders have a significant amount of mental health issues, according to some studies. Overall, there are approximately 2,000 youth held on any day in Los Angeles County’s juvenile halls and thousands more in camps and other facilities. Sticking those youth in regular juvenile hall doesn’t address their mental health issues and often only makes things worse.
These teens get the treatment they need
In regular juvenile court, someone under 18 is charged with a crime and has a trial before a judge, not a jury. The judge then decides if the minor is guilty or not guilty.
But in juvenile mental health court, officials don’t just focus on issues of guilt. Instead, they ask questions like, "How did this minor get into this predicament?" Or, "What did the minor do because of significant mental health issues?"
"We are trying to treat that minor for that mental health problem that he or she is diagnosed with," Klein said. The court then designs individualized treatment programs. For this first year, the court is taking on about 30 clients.
Teens are first referred to Juvenile Mental Health Court by judges, psychologists and therapists. The program is retroactive depending on the stage of the case of teens already in the system.
Then Klein and his mental health court team decide which cases to take on. "After we get a clear diagnosis, we need to know what medication juveniles need at that point. We give it to them if they need to be stabilized immediately," said court psychologist Dr. Alysia Liddell who explained court procedures for teens on medications.
Generally teens who participate in the program have committed less serious crimes or assaults without guns. Sometimes the crimes aren’t initially that serious. But while on probation, Klein said, teens may refuse to go to school, violate curfew, hang around with gang members or get caught with weapons in the classroom. They usually are placed in a camp—a low-security prison for youth—and don’t do well there. When they get out, they refuse to do anything. They’re showing signs of some obvious, serious problems and big crimes are waiting to happen, Klein said.
In the end, teens can choose whether they want to participate in the mental health court and get treatment. Klein said that just the other day, a teen didn’t want to participate in the program. So Klein sent the teen back to the regular juvenile court and will fill the open slot with someone who is willing.
Once in the program, teens must follow the court’s guidelines and stay out of trouble. If participating teens commit crimes, one of two things can happen. Teens who show signs of improvement and have minor relapses will most likely remain in the program, Klein said.
"But if a person went out and shot someone, he’s not going to be in the program," Klein said. "He’s a danger to the community."
Still, expecting a cure for these teens within the first two years and to have no repeat offenses is unrealistic, Klein said.
One youth in the Mental Health Court had significant problems with violence. He was later picked up for a non-violent misdemeanor while in the program.
"We had to remind ourselves that we do not expect instant cures and there’s a lot of progress in the fact that there’s a dramatic reduction in violence, even though we had a relapse," Klein said.
Government programs help pay the costs
Many of the minors involved in Mental Health Court are eligible for Medi-Cal, which helps pay for treatment and medicines. School children and adolescents with serious emotional disturbances can also receive help through California Assembly Bill 3632, which passed in 1984. There are many programs out there at the state and county level to help, Klein said.
It’s too early for any success stories, since the court just started this year, Klein said.
But that doesn’t mean success isn’t happening. Court psychologist Liddell said that this program helps many juveniles start the rehabilitation process much sooner.
"I have worked with many other counseling agencies, but this court is able to place juveniles in the appropriate placement a lot sooner. For minors who have come in and never had mental health treatment, this court has been big."