TAMPA — A couple of weeks ago, a teenage boy walked into Courtroom 53A bristling with anger.
His criminal case had been diverted to Hillsborough County’s juvenile mental health court. He told Chief Judge Ronald Ficarrotta he was worried about his sisters who, like him, were in the foster care system.
Instead of speaking from the bench, the judge sat down with the teenager in the courtroom’s jury box to talk. “I told him, ‘That’s got to be your motivation. You’ve got to be strong and get through this so you can be there for your sisters,'" Ficarrotta recalled Wednesday.
It was a small but meaningful moment in a specialty court that has transformed the county’s approach to juvenile offenders who have mental health issues.
The first of its kind in Florida when it was launched a year ago, juvenile mental health court focuses on providing resources to children and their families to get them out of the system and keep them from returning.
The signs of success are already clear, Ficarrotta and other officials said Wednesday at a news conference in Courtroom 53A.
“You have to remember that for a long, long time, the focus as it related to juvenile kids was not in the area of mental health,” Hillsborough Public Defender Julianne Holt said. “That’s what’s unique here. We have finally embraced, recognized and accepted that mental illness has an impact on how people conform and conduct their behavior.”
The court was initially created to give special attention to the cases of juveniles deemed by mental health professionals incompetent to proceed in the criminal justice process. The cases were piling up because the process to diagnosis children and match them with mental health care providers could take six months, Holt said.
But officials soon realized that some juveniles who were found competent to proceed still had mental health issues or other challenges that could be better addressed by the court’s individualized approach. So Holt and Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren asked Ficarrotta to make the program available to other juveniles who have mental health issues, intellectual disabilities or other challenges.
“Our courtrooms can’t be revolving doors for anyone, especially not those with mental illness and especially not our kids,” Warren said. “If we want to prevent individuals from committing further crimes, then we need to address the underlying problems and that’s exactly what we’re doing with this juvenile mental health court.”
When a child shows up for the court, held every other Wednesday, psychologists and psychiatrists are available to evaluate them and report to the judge. Hillsborough County school district officials are present to provide school records and keep the district informed of the children’s progress, care plans and sanctions.
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“We can say, ‘Here are the needs of the children as they return to school,’” Holt said. “That’s extremely important because that is the only way you have continuity in services and continuity in stability.”
About 110 cases have come through the court since its inception, and there are currently 64 defendants on the docket. The process to evaluate the court’s strengths and areas to improve is underway. One measure of success will be a reduction the recidivism rate, and officials are optimistic, Holt said.
“I think from what we’ve seen we are going to impact recidivism, and I also think we’re going to impact the ability of these kids to go on into life and navigate themselves,” she said.
Positive reinforcement is important. Defendants get punch cards to keep track of successes and get incentives for progress. On the courtroom’s “Success Board,” kids write down their achievements on gold paper stars.
I’m proud of not being locked up.
I’m proud of having good grades and great friends.
I’m proud of being alive.
Ficarrotta said he spends much of his time off the bench, talking with children and families face to face, giving them hugs and pats on the back to build trust and convey that everyone in the courtroom is there to help.
“You start out with these kids being very withdrawn and then you see them come in and they’ve got a smile on their face and they’re proud of their accomplishments, they’re proud of their successes, they’re thankful for things,” Ficarrotta said. “We celebrate that in this courtroom.”
Ficarrotta called the court a natural extension of the adult mental health court he helped launch in 2017. That docket currently has about 350 defendants.
The juvenile court is also another example of how Holt, Warren, and law enforcement officials including Hillsborough Sheriff Chad Chronister have collaborated on progressive criminal justice programs. In the last few years, they’ve created and expanded a juvenile citation program, launched a pre-arrest diversion program for adults and supported the County Commission’s decision to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana.
Chronister said at Wednesday’s news conference that he is grateful to be able to help change the criminal justice system in Hillsborough. But as the father of a 24-year-old son with addiction and mental health issues who is now serving time in state prison, he said, the juvenile mental health court feels personal.
“I stand here next to you and wonder how his path would have been different if this resource would have been available to him," Chronister said. “But I find great comfort knowing that the children who are following him have this resource.”