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Is Mental Health Diversion Available in Juvenile Court?

The short answer to the rhetorical question posed in the title to this article is no.  The Second Appellate District court, in In re M.S. (2019 DJDAR 2907), decided this recently on March 11, 2019, finding that Penal Code §§ 1001.35 and 1001.36, also called Mental Health Diversion, or Mental Disorder Diversion, was intended for mentally ill adults only because the juvenile justice system is separate and distinct from the criminal justice system.  Moreover, it commented that the juvenile justice system had its own rehabilitation programs that would address M.S.’s needs.
The Gist of this Article: Mental health diversion is not available in juvenile court because the fundamental purpose of juvenile court anyways is rehabilitation, including mental and emotional, and because the juvenile court system is considered separate from the criminal court system.
To understand this decision, it helps to understand the underlying facts of In re M.S.  M.S., a minor, was found to have committed second degree murder (Penal Code §§ 187(a), 189 and 12022(b)(1)) through the use of a deadly weapon.  In January, 2016, M.S. gave birth to a baby boy at her Santa Maria home and then, fearful her parents would be upset that she had been pregnant and given birth, then used a knife to cut the baby’s throat and carotid artery.  M.S. then put the baby in a plastic bag in the bathroom vanity.

She then complained to her parents of vaginal bleeding and having an upset stomach, so her parents took her to the local emergency room.  Once there, doctors examined her and literally fond part of an umbilical cord extending out from her vagina.  They then called police.

M.S. first told police that the baby was stillborn.  Then she said that she accidentally killed the baby while trying to cut its umbilical cord.  When confronted with the coroner’s findings, she then admitted that she used a kitchen knife to kill the baby.

Juvenile Court SignJuvenile Court Sign

Counsel for M.S. argued that M.S. should be granted diversion under §§ 1001.35 and 1001.36 to get attention for her psychological needs, to prevent self-harm and obtain continued counseling.  See People v. Frahs (2018) 27 Cal.App.5th 784, 791, review granted Dec. 27, 2018, S252220 (holding that the statute is retroactive to apply to defendants whose appeals are pending at the time the statute was enacted).
Counsel for M.S. obtained psychiatrist reports that M.S. suffered from childhood sexual abuse, “command hallucinations” and had a history of cutting herself, among other psychological problems including pervasive pregnancy denial, a dissociative disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder at the time of her crime.

It merits mention that due to the crime committed, murder, M.S. would be ineligible for mental health diversion even if she had been an adult. Penal Code § 1001.36(b)(2)(A).

Nonetheless, the Second Appellate District evaluated whether mental health diversion was applicable to juveniles who are prosecuted within the juvenile court system, as was M.S.

The Second Appellate Division began its analysis by noting that Welfare and Institutions Code section 203 states: “An order adjudging a minor to be a ward of the juvenile court shall not be deemed a conviction of a crime for any purpose, nor shall a proceeding in the juvenile court be deemed a criminal proceeding.”
Indeed, a juvenile court’ is a separate, civil division of the superior court. Welfare & Institutions Code § 246.  A prosecutor charges a minor with an offense by filing a juvenile petition, rather than a criminal complaint.  Welfare & Institutions Code §§ 653.7, 655.
Thereafter, juveniles admit or deny an offense, rather than plead guilty or not guilty. Welfare & Institutions Code § 702.3.
There are no “trials,” per se, in juvenile court, rather there is a “jurisdictional hearing” presided over by a juvenile court judge.  Welfare & Institutions Code § 602.  The jurisdictional hearing is equivalent to a ‘bench trial’ in a criminal court. See Cal. Rules of Court, Rule 5.780.
Although a juvenile court judge adjudicates alleged law violations, there are no “convictions” in juvenile court.  Welfare & Institutions Code § 203.  Rather, the juvenile court determines under the familiar beyond the reasonable doubt standard and under the ordinary rules of evidence whether the allegations are “true” and if the minor comes within its jurisdiction.  Welfare & Institutions Code § 602 et seq.
Moreover, there is no “sentence,” per se, in juvenile court.  Rather a judge can impose a wide variety of rehabilitation alternatives after conducting a “dispositional hearing,” which is equivalent to a sentencing hearing in a criminal court.  Welfare & Institutions Code § 725.5; In re Devin J. (1984) 155 Cal.App.3d 1096, 1100, 202 Cal. Rptr. 543.

Turning to M.S.’s case, the appellate court noted that the juvenile court judge placed M.S. in the highest level of treatment in a group home.  In other words, she was going to receive mental health treatment just as 1001.36 directs anyways, despite the charges she faced excluding her from such treatment if she had been in adult court.

The citation for the Second Appellate District Court ruling discussed above is In re M.S. (2nd App. Dist., 2019) 32 Cal.App.5th 1177, 244 Cal. Rptr. 3d 580.

For more information about mental health diversion and Penal Code § 1001.36, please click on the following articles:
  1. Is PC 1001.36 (Mental Disorder Diversion) Retroactive?
  2. What Is Mental Disorder Diversion (Penal Code 1001.36)?
  3. Penal Code § 1368, Mental Competency & Declaring a Doubt
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