Human Rights Watch urges the Senate Judiciary Committee to incorporate language in the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Reauthorization Act to promote early identification of mental health and substance abuse disorders among juveniles in the justice system, increase training for staff and juvenile justice stakeholders on mental health and substance abuse problems, and provide an increased focus on rehabilitating young people in home- and community-based care.

July 14, 2008

The Honorable Patrick J. Leahy
Chairman, Committee on the Judiciary
United States Senate
433 Russell Senate Office Building
Washington, DC 20510-4502

The Honorable Arlen Specter
Ranking Member, Committee on the Judiciary
United States Senate
711 Hart Senate Office Building
Washington, DC 20510-3802

Re: Human Rights Watch Supports a Provision in the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Reauthorization Act to Improve the Treatment of Juveniles with Mental Health or Substance Abuse Disorders

Dear Chairman Leahy and Senator Specter:

Human Rights Watch writes in strong support of a provision to strengthen the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Reauthorization Act (JJDPA) of 2008, S. 3155, by improving the treatment of juveniles with mental health or substance abuse disorders.

Mental health and substance abuse problems are widespread and pervasive among children in the juvenile justice system. Human Rights Watch has issued reports on the lack of appropriate care for mentally ill prisoners and on the juvenile justice system in general. Based on our research, we urge the Committee to strengthen the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Reauthorization Act and improve the treatment of juveniles with mental health or substance abuse disorders. Strengthening the provision of mental health treatment for children in the juvenile justice system will also comport with US treaty obligations under international law.

The treatment of mentally ill incarcerated children is governed by international standards set forth in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Administration of Juvenile Justice, the UN Rules for the Protection of Juveniles Deprived of their Liberty, the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, and the UN Principles for the Protection of Persons with Mental Illness and the Improvement of Mental Health Care. In accordance with these international standards, Human Rights Watch urges the Committee to incorporate language in the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Reauthorization Act to promote early identification of mental health and substance abuse disorders among juveniles in the justice system. The Act should also increase training for staff and juvenile justice stakeholders in mental health and substance abuse issues, and expand the use of intensive home-based and community-based services for juveniles with mental health or substance abuse problems who come into contact with the juvenile justice system.

Screening and assessment are important first steps in the provision of mental health care. S. 3155 should amend current law to improve the identification of juveniles with mental health or substance abuse disorders through an initial mental health screening and assessment. Such an improvement would be consistent with international standards, which prescribe complete mental health assessments of incarcerated children as soon as possible after they are admitted to a facility.

Human Rights Watch also supports strengthening language that calls for training for individuals involved in making decisions regarding the disposition of cases involving youth who enter the juvenile justice system. The importance of training juvenile justice stakeholders to promote rehabilitation and provide positive role models is reflected in detailed international guidelines regarding staff selection, qualifications, remuneration, and training. According to international standards, juvenile justice services are to be provided “with a view to improving and sustaining the competence of personnel involved in the services, including their methods, approaches and attitudes.”

Language providing for increased diversion of juveniles with mental health or substance abuse disorders into home-based or community-based care would facilitate the rehabilitation of young people who need services and treatment, rather than incarceration. By including this provision, and focusing on the ability of youth to rehabilitate and integrate into society, given sufficient support and care, the JJDPA will comport with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), a treaty the United States ratified in 1992. Article 14.4 of the ICCPR requires that governments shall “[i]n the case of juvenile persons … take account of their age and the desirability of promoting their rehabilitation.”

For the forgoing reasons, Human Rights Watch urges the Senate Judiciary Committee to take this important opportunity to strengthen the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Reauthorization Act and improve the treatment of juveniles who suffer mental health or substance abuse disorders.

Thank you for your consideration, and please feel free to contact me if you would like any further information.

Sincerely,

Carol Chodroff
Advocacy Director, US Program

cc: Senate Judiciary Committee Members
Senator Edward M. Kennedy
Senator Joseph R. Biden, Jr.
Senator Herb Kohl
Senator Dianne Feinstein
Senator Russell D. Feingold
Senator Charles E. Schumer
Senator Richard J. Durbin
Senator Benjamin L. Cardin
Senator Sheldon Whitehouse
Senator Orrin G. Hatch
Senator Charles E. Grassley
Senator Jon Kyl
Senator Jeff Sessions
Senator Lindsey Graham
Senator John Cornyn
Senator Sam Brownback
Senator Tom Coburn