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Police Urge Mental Health Treatment for Young Offenders

California police officials are asking that more money be spent on mental health care for young offenders. They say counseling and treatment can dramatically reduce juvenile crime rates.

The officials say at least 80 percent of young offenders have identifiable mental health disorders, and that proper treatment can reduce juvenile arrests by as much as one third.

Los Angeles Sheriff Lee Baca says every police patrolman knows there is a link between mental illness and crime. Sheriff Baca runs the country's largest local jail system, which he says is also the nation's largest mental health facility. Each day, his department dispenses 6,000 doses of psychotropic drugs that doctors have prescribed for the inmates.

Speaking at a news conference with other police officials, he said mental health care is lacking for young offenders.

"Those of us in law enforcement see this as a crime prevention tool, as a way of helping young people get back on their feet and not spiral down into the abyss of mental illness," said Sheriff Baca.

California voters recently approved $1 billion in state spending for mental health care, and the law enforcement officers want some of it spent on youngsters who are in trouble. Los Angeles police chief Bill Bratton says treatment will save money in the long run.

"Rather than spending $80,000 to house a juvenile for a year, with these things we can spend much less money and, in fact, keep many of these kids out of a life of crime, and keep what few police we have here in California focused much more significantly on the serious violent offenders. So this is a win-win-win [situation]," said Mr. Bratton.

Barbara Paradise supervises a mental health program for young offenders in the San Fernando Valley in suburban Los Angeles. She says most young people who are on probation, have been convicted of only minor infractions.

"Truancy, substance abuse, aggression in the home and in the community, non-compliance with their orders of probation, non-compliance in the home, running away, those kinds of behaviors," she noted.

She says their lives can be turned around with the right kind of intervention. Her program provides family counseling, and tries to redirect youngsters away from drugs and gangs into productive activities, such as after-school programs.

Barrie Becker directs an advocacy group called Fight Crime-Invest in Kids/California, and she says mental health programs will keep many trouble-prone teenagers out of detention centers.

"They also happen to have other positive outcomes, like staying in school, staying at home, being productive later on in society, and generally the biggest factor for us is staying out of the juvenile justice system," said Ms. Becker.

Her organization also promotes programs to curb child abuse, and professional child-care projects for toddlers, which she says lay the groundwork for mentally healthy teenagers and adults.

California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger recently announced an overhaul of the California Youth Authority, the state's juvenile detention system, which houses 3,700 young inmates. The overhaul, undertaken in response to a lawsuit, includes an upgrade of the treatment of mentally ill inmates.