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Juvenile Justice Courts Promote Education Over Incarceration

Juvenile Justice Courts Promote Education Over Incarceration
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When middle schooler Alex walked up to the judge’s bench with his mother, you could feel the tension between them. The Thursday docket was full and the family was running late. Shortly after they missed their names being called, they entered the room in a frenzy. The judge agreed to see them, and after checking in on progress, Alex took a moment to report that he felt as if the program wasn’t for him. As he continued to speak, his mother became tearful.

Alex told the judge that the program wasn’t helping, and his mother echoed a similar sentiment, explaining to the judge why participation in the program felt like a lost cause.

“It’s hard to get here and I’m tired after work,” Alex’s mother said. She recounted to the judge experiences at home over the last two weeks where Alex slammed doors and threw tantrums. “He doesn’t know how to control himself,” she told the judge.

Committing a low-level offense is how Alex ended up in the Bexar County Juvenile Detention Center. Alex, who has been given a pseudonym for privacy concerns, was referred by the Bexar County Juvenile Detention Center to participate in the Males In Need of Direction (MIND) Court, a voluntary diversion program that addresses the mental health needs of 10 – to 16-year-old boys before they get too deeply tangled in the juvenile justice system.

MIND Court, made possible through a $249,980 grant from the United States Justice Department awarded to the County in 2016, has been overseen by Judge Daphne Previti Austin since its inception. If completed, participants have the opportunity to have their criminal records sealed, essentially deleted from the justice system’s database, for a fresh start.

Austin told the Rivard Report that because the program is so time consuming and structured, they try to limit the Mind Court to 12 participants at a time. “They have to be very invested.”

The Crossroads program, which was established in 2009, was created with two U.S. Justice Department grants that totaled more than $200,000 and has since evolved into a national model for serving mentally ill adolescents in the justice system. In 2016, it was one of five programs in the country to receive the National Criminal Justice Association Outstanding Criminal Justice Program in the western region of the United States.

So far, 89 girls have successfully completed the Crossroads program.

“That doesn’t sound like a lot, but that’s 89 people stable in the community,” Austin said.

Von Stultz said that the important thing for people both in and out of the program is to recognize is that often times a child gets in trouble because they are unable to manage their mental health symptoms. The result is that they may end up doing something destructive.

“When you talk to the child and family, you find that they don’t have the resources needed to manage their health,” he said. “These children and families  feel like they are at the very end – at the worst part of their lives.

“The family doesn’t know what to do, the child feels helpless, and if the child doesn’t get the help they need it will get worse. It’s a critical time to intervene and help the child and family build on the strengths they do have.”

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