Bill Proposes Caps on How Long Mentally Incompetent Youth Spend in Juvenile Hall

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A Central Coast state lawmaker says that youth with mental illnesses detained in juvenile hall can languish interminably without proper care or attention.

That’s why Assemblyman Mark Stone is promoting a bill to make the rules for young people who are mentally incompetent to stand trial the same as those for adults.

If an adult facing criminal trial but shows signs of mental incompetence, they must be given mental health treatment or placed in a qualified mental health facility until they have been deemed competent enough to fully understand the trial process.

In contrast, “some of these kids are being kept in juvenile halls, untreated, for lengths of time that regularly exceed normal sentencing,” Stone said. “They’re simply languishing there. This is something that’s needed to be addressed for some time.”

The bill, AB 935, has won the support of the state Chief Probation Officer’s Association.

“AB 935 is a much-needed piece of legislation to better serve kids with mental illness in the justice system. Currently, we are seeing youth in juvenile halls who would be much better served by receiving mental health treatment in a facility designed for that purpose,” Mary Butler, chief probation officer for Napa County and president of the Chief Probation Officer’s Association, said in an email statement.

Butler predicted that the legislation would result in more appropriate placements for youth going through competency proceedings.

Both the California State Sheriffs’ Association and the California District Attorney’s Association oppose the legislation.

Bonnie Dumanis, San Diego County’s recently retired district attorney, said in a letter to Assembly leaders earlier this year that she opposed AB 935 because it gave too much latitude to judges to dismiss misdemeanor charges filed against juveniles found incompetent to stand trial.

Dumanis also argued that in those cases where minors have had their cases dismissed they’ve also avoided paying restitution to their victims.

Stone said that argument doesn’t hold water as the bill would require the state to treat mentally ill youth, not simply release them from detention.

“Our justice system requires those that have been accused of crimes to know what’s happening around them to ensure a fair trial. If they’re not competent then they will be given the help they need until they are,” he said. “This isn’t a scheme to get these kids off the hook.”

Based on his research, about 300 of the estimated 7,000 wards now in the California juvenile justice system are suffering from mental incompetency and aren’t getting the help they need, Stone said.

The legislation passed through the Assembly and will be heard by the Senate Appropriations Committee today, Aug. 21. If approved by the committee, AB 935 must travel back to an Assembly concurrence committee. If the bill is still intact by then it will travel to the governor for his signature or veto.

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