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‘Comprehensive approach’ proposed to help youths in the criminal justice system with mental illness

Speak to anyone who works in the criminal justice system — law enforcement, prosecutors, defense attorneys, or judges — and you’ll likely hear the system is not doing justice to offenders with mental health issues.

In his work as a Ramsey County prosecutor, Rep. Dave Pinto (DFL-St. Paul) has seen that untreated mental illness is a major reason young offenders often become repeat offenders who keep colliding with the criminal justice system.

He sponsors HF4397, which would appropriate $8 million in fiscal year 2023 to the Office of Justice Programs to establish and expand youth justice services focusing on mental health treatment for youths, especially those in the criminal justice system.

Call it a matter of an ounce of prevention being worth a pound of cure.

“We need to take a very comprehensive approach to juvenile justice,” Pinto said.

The House Public Safety and Criminal Justice Reform Finance and Policy Committee laid the bill over Tuesday for possible omnibus bill inclusion.

“Mental health services … are probably the most critical and overarching need within the juvenile justice system,” said Kate Richtman, retired head of the juvenile division of the Ramsey County Attorney’s Office. “Especially needed are crisis and stabilization services, as well as comprehensive mental health screening.”

Of the $8 million request, $5 million would be for grants to individuals or organizations providing mental health services for youth. Those could include residential care, community-based treatment, and treatment or counseling provided at schools.

The remaining $3 million would establish or support after-school programming, mentoring, tutoring, and community engagement that specifically incorporates trauma-informed therapy.

The bill also seeks yet-to-be-determined amounts of additional funding in fiscal year 2023 for other juvenile services. Pinto said exact amounts would be determined when requested fiscal notes are completed.

Some additional money could be used to fund an independent consultant to develop an assessment tool for the juvenile justice and mental health systems that would include a continuum-of-care model specifically designed for the juvenile justice population.

Other money could be used for grants to provide comprehensive, facility-wide training on mental health crisis response and trauma-informed care at the state’s 12 juvenile detention facilities.

Pinto said that with the state’s large budget surplus at hand, now is the time “to take great strides” to address juvenile mental illness.

“We know that there are tremendous needs in our state, and we have resources that should be applied to meet those needs,” he said. “I could not think of a higher need than making sure that young people are on a path that is good for them, and good for their health, and good for their lives.”

Sen. Bobby Joe Champion (DFL-Mpls) sponsors the companion bill, SF4327, which awaits action by the Senate Judiciary and Public Safety Finance and Policy Committee.

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