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Our Children, Our Future?

The worst thing you can have is power and lack of knowledge. — psychologist Habsi Kaba.

Last Friday, I was privileged to attend the (Juvenile) Behavioral Health Court Quarterly Meeting in my county. I was a little surprised to learn that I was the only private practice criminal defense lawyer to take advantage of this opportunity, but that’s a story for another blog article, another time. Believing this to be a better alternative for some of my juvenile clients than repeated episodes of pointless incarceration which merely exacerbates their conditions, I wanted to learn more about how the behavioral court worked.

One of the first, saddest, and most difficult things I learned of concerns the struggle the Behavioral Health Court has just to survive.

The United States, but California in particular, has a penchant for punishment — no matter the costs. Yet we recoil from rehabilitation, despite the savings, because “it costs too much.”

“I don’t care. Lock ’em up and throw away the key,” say many of my friends. I was quite disturbed recently to learn that even one of my friends in the Public Defender’s office feels this way.

And it’s difficult to find an appropriate response, because (so far) none of the people I’ve run into who hold these views base their opinions on anything connected with the real world, or even logic. The attitudes are emotionally driven, or based upon unexamined assumptions.

This is particularly troubling when it comes to juveniles — children — who come into contact with law enforcement. As the most recent data shows, that amounts to around 80,000 children per day. According to that same article, as many as 80 percent — eighty-percent! — of these children suffer from a recognizable mental health disorder, while others estimate the number anywhere between 65 to 70 percent with diagnosable disorders. Twenty-five percent have disorders so severe as to impact their ability to function.

No matter how you slice it, that’s a lot of kids.

In most cases, because their mental illnesses are going undiagnosed, we’re essentially trying to get these kids to do what is physiologically impossible, and then punishing them when they fail to comply. No small part of the problem is that many who should be helping these kids don’t understand the problem; they don’t see juvenile offender behavior as a mental health problem.

This is true, though, even for children who are not diagnosed with actual mental health issues.

“There’s been so much neurological research and outcome research into juveniles in the last 20 years that shows how powerful rehabilitation can be for a young person whose brain is still developing,” said Carol Chodroff, advocacy director of Human Rights Watch’s U.S. program in Washington, D.C. “People are starting to realize that it works, that it saves money and kids, and that’s why this bill is so important.” (Editorial, “Rehabilitating juvenile justice” (July 14, 2008) San Francisco Chronicle (online).)

The bottom line on that we need to remember the old cliche: “Our children are our future.” All children. The costs of programs — like some kind of a “behavioral” court — to rehabilitate them, whether they are actually mentally ill or not, is significantly less than what we will spend otherwise (Update 9/26/2016: link broken), both monetarily and in terms of human suffering.

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