Reform Agenda

The Commonweal Juvenile Justice Program reform agenda promotes policies, funding and best-practice models for effective mental health interventions for at-risk youth and youth involved with the juvenile justice system. In this area, we are currently working to promote and support the following agenda items:

  • Replicate proven models of service coordination like the probation-based Healthy Returns Initiative, piloted by The California Endowment in five counties from 2005 to 2010.
  • Mandate court-ordered evaluations for youth in delinquency proceedings having suspected mental health disorders, and based on evaluation, limit and tailor delinquency placements to assure adequate care.
  • Ensure that counties spending juvenile justice and mental health funds under juvenile justice realignment in California are dedicating an adequate share to effective mental health services.
  • Improve the access of juvenile justice programs to MHSA funds.
  • Shrink or eliminate the “inmate exception” for juveniles that presently eliminates Medi-Cal coverage for detained youth.
  • Replicate trauma-informed and trauma-responsive approaches to juvenile justice processing and care.
  • Designate a state oversight body to guide targeted local efforts to improve service delivery and mental health outcomes for justice-involved youth.

Science and technology have advanced to provide new and more effective models of assessment, intervention and service for justice system youth with mental health treatment needs. Some of the promising models of reform are:

Assessment Tools: Validated assessment instruments to identify mental health disorders and treatment needs have been used increasingly by juvenile justice agencies across the nation. Among these is the “MAYSI-II” detention intake assessment tool that has been implemented and effectively used by probation departments in California.

Non-Custodial Treatment Models: Some non-custodial and evidence-based intervention strategies have proven to be cost-effective alternatives to incarceration-based programs for juvenile justice youth with mental health needs. Among these are MST (Multi-systemic therapy) and FFT (Functional Family Therapy)—short-term interventions with proven effectiveness.

Healthy Returns Initiative: From 2005 to 2010, The California Endowment piloted its Healthy Returns Initiative in five counties. The initiative focused on early identification and treatment of mental health disorders using a collaborative inter-agency approach to serve arrested and detained youth. The initiative evaluation documented improved levels of service and better outcomes for justice system youth. However, the model was not replicated in other counties when foundation funding ended.

Mental Health Services Act (MHSA): In 2004, California voters approved MHSA, which now draws more than $1 billion per year in tax revenue to support community mental health services. However, juvenile justice programs and clients have had limited access to these funds.

Bernalillo County Mental Health Clinic: This New Mexico county has paired a youth mental health unit with its detention center in an innovative way that has gathered state and federal approval for Medicaid coverage for these clients, otherwise barred from coverage by the Medicaid “inmate exclusion.”

Competency Legislation: Youth with severe mental impairments pose due process questions regarding their ability to comprehend their behavior and participate in their defense. Youth Law Center has taken the lead in California in promoting new legislation to secure the rights of children in difficult competency cases.