When mental health courts work — and some experts say the results are mixed — they reduce the number of offenders behind bars while linking people to services that can help them avoid being arrested again.
In the District, a minor charged with an eligible offense — mostly misdemeanors and nonviolent offenses such as attempting to flee a law enforcement officer or driving while intoxicated — can apply to have a case diverted to Goldfrank’s court if the youth has a mental health diagnosis, such as generalized anxiety disorder or social phobia.
Instead of facing incarceration, which can increase the odds that the juvenile will re-offend, juveniles in diversion must deal with their problem behavior. If they’re cutting school, they have to go back, or consider getting a GED or a job. If they’re doing drugs, they have to get tested and get treatment. If they need therapy, they have to see a psychologist.
If they succeed, they graduate from the program and have their cases dismissed. If they fail, they may find their cases back on the regular juvenile calendar.
“You can’t overstate how important it is to have real interventions that are targeted to the real needs of the youth,” Bush said.
Bush used to run D.C.’s juvenile drug court, and she said she saw kids there who, “80 to 90 percent of the time,” were smoking marijuana to self-medicate for undiagnosed mental health problems.
“If you just get the kids to stop smoking, that anxiety and depression and trauma is still untreated,” she said. “You really want to get to the underlying problem that they are self-treating and self-medicating. If you do that, you’re getting them to adjust better at home, at school and in the community.”
Whether the new mental health diversion court is meeting those objectives will be the subject of two internal reviews by D.C. Superior Court.
Early statistics are encouraging. A report from the D.C. Department of Mental Health showed that 56 juveniles were enrolled in diversion in 2011. Eight, or 14 percent, were re-arrested, compared with 40 percent in regular court. Nationally, the re-arrest rate is 60 percent, according to the report.
“I’m saying we’re cautiously excited,” said Marie Morilus-Black, the mental health agency’s director of children and youth services. “The recidivism rate — we’re just blown away by it. It’s actually showing that it’s working.”
Juveniles are generally prosecuted by the D.C. attorney general’s office, and Assistant Attorney General Rachele Reid is the prosecutor assigned to the juvenile mental health court. In an interview, Reid said that diversion efforts fit into the city’s objectives.
“Families and communities are looking for alternatives to detention, but we are there to ensure public safety,” said Reid, who sees up to 30 families a week in JM-4. “Believe it or not, the mind-set of our section
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is to be looking to diversion programs.” After all, treatment can prevent crimes. As Reid puts it: “We don’t want them back here.”
James L. Nolan, a sociology professor at Williams College who has written two books on problem-solving courts, said enthusiasm should be tempered. Although the first mental health court was established in 1997, in Florida, it’s not clear how well such programs stop bad behavior.
“It is not uncommon for local court programs to exaggerate success rates,” Nolan said. “This clearly happened in the early years of the drug court movement. Many of the locally generated evaluations had serious design flaws. This did not dissuade most problem-solving advocates, nor did it seem to dampen the general enthusiasm for these programs.”
But teenagers such as a 17-year old who was referred to diversion in October offer the staff hope that juvenile mental health court will succeed.
The teenager was already attending drug treatment programming at Federal City Recovery Services in Southeast Washington twice a week, and the diversion program offered her the prospect of avoiding traditional prosecution.
After almost six months in the diversion program, she graduated last month with a framed certificate of completion, a letter from the office of the attorney general, a gift-wrapped copy of “Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl” and a handshake from Goldfrank.
“This isn’t something I want you to hang in your bathroom,” Goldfrank said, stepping from behind the bench — a rare sight in other courtrooms — to hand the young woman her certificate. “When problems come up, don’t feel like you have to sort them out yourself.”