Interview With A Juvenile Defense Attorney
As much as we criminal lawyers complain about the juvenile detention system in Washington, D.C., we sometimes forget that there are other hard-working juvenile defense attorneys in other states who have a rough go of things as well. We got to speak to Jill Ruane about some of the issues she faces in her home state of Connecticut.
What privileges do adults with mental illnesses get in Connecticut adult court vs. privileges given to New Haven juveniles in juvenile court?
To begin, I’d like point out that adult court is a different legal process than juvenile court. That being said, in adult court, offenders with mental illnesses have access to rehabilitative programs. One such program is Connecticut’s new Supervised Divisionary Program (SDP). This program gives adults with mental illnesses more consideration than youthful offenders with mental illnesses receive in juvenile court. There is no similar program for youthful offenders. Mental illness is considered for minors only if their attorney advocates for them and informs the prosecutor of the illness during negotiation. Unfortunately, in many cases prosecutors are not receptive to mental illnesses.
What is the Supervised Divisionary Program?
The supervised divisionary program is legislature that became law a few years ago. The court became concerned that there was a high concentration of nonviolent mentally ill males in jail. With overcrowded jails, the state began to wonder if these people could be moved out of jail and rehabilitated in some other way. A program was created to get mentally ill criminals help through court intervention. This would keep them out of jail. The SDP mimics the accelerated rehabilitation program, which is fairly similar.
What are some requirements for the SDP?
In order to be eligible for the supervised divisionary program, you have to commit an eligible crime. People who commit serious crimes will not be taken into consideration for the program. The program is geared towards poor individuals that cannot afford their medication. If individuals commit a crime because they can’t afford medication or because they are using illegal substances in order to self-medicate, they probably aren’t violent criminals. It is their illness that makes them act out. This generally leads to crimes such as stealing, possession of illegal substances, and breach of peace. These offenders are generally not violent, but these crimes can carry jail time as a potential sentence. As an alternative to jail, these individuals could qualify for the supervised divisionary program. In order to qualify, you must also be willing to have a CSSD evaluation done and you have to abide by the recommendations of the evaluation.
How is the supervised divisionary program different from the accelerated rehabilitation program? Do you think that it is better?
I do think that this program is better because some of the main problems in the accelerated rehabilitation program are addressed in the SDP. For example, the accelerated rehabilitation program only allows people to participate if they have not committed prior crimes. You can only use the accelerated rehabilitation program once. The SDP focuses more on a long-term process of rehabilitation by allowing criminals with prior records to use the program’s resources more than once. Long-term treatment options have been lacking in our society since the 1980s. There are no longer real mental institutions that you can get long term care from. Instead, you are treated short-term by hospitals and rehabilitation centers. This program seeks to offer a more concrete and lasting treatment plan to the mentally ill.
Why is there no equivalent to the SDP in the juvenile court system?
I think that one major problem is a lack of education on the part of judges and lawyers when dealing with New Haven juveniles that have mental illnesses. Criminal behavior can be explained by mental illnesses such as anxiety, ADHD, depression, or autism. Autism is a big problem these days, because more and more people are being diagnosed with it. Autism explains a lot of criminal activity by minors – even violent crimes. The problem is that it becomes the defense attorney’s job to educate the court on why the crime occurred and how it is related to mental illness, which can be difficult. If you spend half an hour with the offender, you know that he or she needs help. But when you just get a police report that says the minor assaulted his neighbor, you don’t see the big picture. The prosecutor never has direct contact with the minor. Similarly, the judge doesn’t get the chance to speak to him or her for a very long time. This makes it difficult for them to understand that the child has a problem.
Can you give an example of how a youthful offender with a mental illness can be misunderstood by the court?
Take the autism example. Let’s say that hypothetically, a teenager with autism is arrested for assaulting his sibling. This outburst could be caused by the mental illness. Kids with autism fear direct contact and have a hard time controlling themselves once they are angered. So if a sibling gets mad and grabs the autistic teen’s arm, he is going to react very strongly, and possibly hurt his sibling. But this is due to his illness, not because he is malicious. He needs treatment, not a juvenile detention hall or probation. On top of that, the illness might impact how the offender is received by a police officer. The New Haven juvenile offender might come across as defiant or remorseless but in reality he’s afraid and doesn’t know how to handle the situation, as people with autism are not good with social cues. Furthermore, some people with autism are literally unable to feel remorse. Sometimes it’s hard for police officers or prosecutors to know if the youthful offender in question has a mental illness and needs help, or if he is a smart-aleck that needs to learn a lesson.
Do you think this happens to minors with mental illnesses across the board?
Not necessarily. I do think that public defenders see this more than we see it in the private sector. This is because poor teenagers don’t have the same access to mental illness services as rich teenagers. As a result, the poor suffer, and this leads to the problem that we had with mentally ill, nonviolent people in adult prisons.
So what needs to change in the juvenile court system in order to fix this problem?
First of all, people need to be educated. This includes lawyers, judges, police officers – everyone needs to have a better understanding of mental illness when dealing with New Haven juveniles. This is the only way that mental illness can be treated properly. The legislature also must change. They need to create a program for poor children that don’t have the money to deal with their mental illnesses. If we intervene at a younger age, we can help solve the problem of having mentally ill adults commit crimes.