We interviewed our primary juvenile defense attorney, Attorney Jill Ruane (also known as Lady Juvenile), about mental health and juveniles. Read on to hear what she thinks about the juvenile system.

What privileges do adults with mental illnesses get in Connecticut adult court that juveniles do not get in juvenile court?  

To begin, it is important to clarify that juvenile court is a different legal process than adult court. That said, in adult court, people with mental illnesses have access to Connecticut’s Supervised Divisionary Program (SDP). This program gives adults with mental illnesses more consideration than youthful offenders with mental illnesses receive. There is no similar program for youthful offenders in Connecticut. The only way that mental illness works as a defense for minors for minors is if their attorney advocates for them and discloses this information during the negotiation. Unfortunately, many times prosecutors do not feel receptive to mental illness.

What is the Supervised Divisionary Program?

The SDP is legislature that was written into law a few years ago. The court realized that there was a high concentration of nonviolent mentally ill people in jail. This was a concern at the time, as jails were overcrowded. The state sought to address these high numbers and create a program to get mentally ill criminals court intervention in order to keep them out of jail. The SDP mimics the accelerated rehabilitation program, which is fairly similar.

How are the accelerated rehabilitation program and the supervised divisionary program different?

Some of the main problems in the accelerated rehabilitation program got addressed and corrected in the SDP. For example, the accelerated rehabilitation program only allows people to participate if they have no prior criminal history. You can also only use the accelerated rehabilitation program once. The SDP focuses on a longer process of rehabilitation by allowing criminals with prior records to use the program’s resources up to two times.

What are some requirements for the SDP?

Eligibility to participate in the supervised diversionary program requires you to commit an eligible crime. People who commit very serious crimes will not get consideration for the program. The program serves poor individuals that have used illegal substances in order to self-medicate. This generally leads to crimes such as stealing, breach of peace, and possession of illegal substances. These offenders usually do not possess violent characteristics, but these crimes can carry jail time as a potential sentence. As an alternative to jail time, these individuals could qualify for the supervised divisionary program. You also have to submit to a CSSD evaluation and to abide by the recommendations of the evaluation if you want to partake in the program.

Why is there no equivalent to the SDP in the juvenile court system?

I think that it really boils down to a lack of education on the part of lawyers and judges when dealing with Bridgeport juveniles that have mental illnesses. Criminal behavior can be explained by mental illnesses such as ADHD, depression, anxiety, or autism. Autism is a huge one these days, because more and more people are being diagnosed with it. Autism can explain even violent crimes. It becomes the defense attorney’s job to educate the court on why the crime occurred, which can be difficult. The prosecutor never has direct contact with the minor. The judge doesn’t get the chance to speak to them 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 again. Let’s say that hypothetically, a teenager with autism is arrested for assaulting a sibling. To start with, this altercation could be caused by the mental illness. Kids with autism fear direct contact and have a hard time controlling themselves once they become angry. So if a sibling gets mad and grabs the autistic teen’s arm, he is going to have a bad reaction. On top of that, the illness might impact how he comes off to a police officer. He might come across as defiant or remorseless but in reality he’s just 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 express or feel remorse. Sometimes it’s hard for police officers or prosecutors in the Bridgeport juvenile system to know if the kid has a problem and needs treatment, 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 definitely think that public defenders see this more than someone in the private sector. This is because rich teenagers have more access to helpful services than poor teenagers do. As a result, the poor suffer, and this leads to the problem that we had with mentally ill, nonviolent people in jail.

So what needs to change in the juvenile court system? How can we fix this problem? 

For starters, people need to be educated. Judges, lawyers, and police officers that deal with Bridgeport juveniles need to have a better understanding of mental illness so that we can treat it properly. The legislature also has to change. They need to create a program for poor children that don’t have the money to combat their mental illness. By intervening at a younger age, we can help solve the problem of having mentally ill adults commit crimes.

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