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Originally published March 27, 2013 at 4:42 PM | Page modified March 27, 2013 at 4:41 PM

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Op-ed: Get kids mental-health care instead of sending them to juvenile courts

The state should allow law-enforcement officials to send nonviolent youth to mental-health-care facilities instead of the juvenile-justice system, according to guest columnists Mary Helen Roberts and Eric Trupin.

Special to The Times

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IMAGINE you have a 14-year-old daughter named Carla with a mental-health disorder.

Carla is at the mall with friends when she begins to experience an unusual burst of energy and a feeling of being indestructible. She starts climbing on counters and knocks down a display of baseball caps.

Mall security comes over and Carla begins talking really fast and loudly and is unable to calm down. The police are called.

There are two ways police can handle Carla.

They can whisk her into detention — and into a juvenile-justice system that stains her record in the eyes of future employers and school admissions staff.

Or, if the state Senate passes a new bill, the police can take Carla to a treatment facility where she has time to calm down. Staffers then call you, her parent, to meet with a mental-health counselor who may suggest a course of treatment focused on practical and effective ways that will help Carla manage her behavior.

No record. No court appearance. And a recommendation for improved treatment.

Which would you want for your daughter?

Engrossed Substitute House Bill 1524, which has already passed the state House of Representatives, would expand the list of facilities where law-enforcement officials can take nonviolent youth they believe are suffering from mental disorders. Unlike a similar law for adults, the youth does not already have to be in treatment for the law to apply.

It would also expand the number of counseling hours a young person could receive through such diversion, making it more likely that she will get quality services.

Now, let’s say you don’t have a daughter with mental-health issues.

There are still important reasons that you would prefer a troubled youth to be diverted away from the juvenile-justice system and into mental-health treatment, starting with reduced recidivism.

A Campbell Collaboration review of nearly 30 studies on diversion for juvenile offenders from the 1970s to the 2000s showed that young people who participated in formal court processing had higher recidivism rates than youth who were diverted. And youth who are diverted and receive counseling services have even lower recidivism rates.

How many kids could that affect? Between 65 and 70 percent of youth in the juvenile system have at least one diagnosable mental-health disorder.

What’s more, it’s a better deal for taxpayers.

Treating a young person with mental-health issues with appropriate services rather than sending him or her to the juvenile-justice system saves taxpayers at least $1,470 per youth, according to a Washington State Institute for Public Policy study from 2001.

So even if you don’t have a daughter struggling with mental-health issues, it’s still better that other children receive treatment. It saves money and means fewer damaging incidents in the community.

There are two paths on which we can send young people with mental-health issues.

One is a future in which they are thrust into the justice system — thereby becoming more likely to reoffend, less likely to get a good education and less likely to land a strong family-wage job.

The second option is to divert young offenders onto a more productive path,a path where they get the care they need to succeed and become strong citizens.

The Washington State Senate should pass ESHB 1524 and Gov. Jay Inslee should sign it. It’s the smart decision for our youth, our communities, our overburdened justice system and our state budget.

State Rep. Mary Helen Roberts, D-Lynnwood, left, is vice chair of the Public Safety Committee. Eric Trupin is professor and vice chair in the Department of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences at the University of Washington School of Medicine.

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