Eighth Judicial District Court Family Division Creates First and Only Diversionary Court for At-Risk Autistic Youth

Read about a unique specialty court in this article written by Judge Soonhee “Sunny” Bailey of the Eighth Judicial District Court in Nevada

By Judge Soonhee “Sunny” Bailey

Nevada recently made history with the passage and enactment of Senate Bill 411, which creates a statewide diversionary court for at-risk autistic youth. This is a special group of children with immense potential who are often misunderstood by their families, schools, and courts, and who do not receive the care, guidance, and control the Legislature previously mandated in NRS 62A.360 that juvenile courts provide. SB 411, introduced by Senator James Ohrenschall, makes Nevada the first and only state to have a specialty court for these youth. To those involved in the Detention Alternative for Autistic Youth (DAAY) Court, SB 411 embodies Nevada’s dedication to our community and children.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, approximately one in 36 youths in the United States is diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Although aggression is not a symptom of ASD, autistic youth sometimes behave aggressively towards others or engage in self-destructive behavior. This can lead to charges of domestic violence, battery on protected persons, and threats to family, teachers, first responders, and the community. It is unclear how many autistic adults end up in the criminal justice system. A 2012 study estimated approximately four percent, or 100,000, of incarcerated inmates in the state and federal prison systems were autistic. However, absent appropriate testing and diagnosis, the numbers could be higher.

In April 2018, juvenile probation officers alerted me about an autistic youth arrested for domestic violence currently in detention who was overwhelmed by the court process, thereby preventing him from meaningfully participating. The juvenile probation officers were aware of my experience with my own daughter with autism. We resolved the issue by simply hearing his case on a quiet afternoon with a light calendar to reduce the possibility of overstimulation and a potential violent outbreak. We believed it would be a one-time occurrence. However, the calendar grew as more autistic youth or youth with suspected autism were recognized. Similar to youth who are found incompetent and in need of services, we quickly realized the need for a specialty court to address the unique issues of autistic youth to divert them out of the normal juvenile justice system and help them avoid entering the adult criminal justice system.

In the beginning, our team was small and dedicated to the youth we aimed to serve. The judges of the district court family division strongly supported the program and allowed the use of court-generated fees to continue the program. The district attorney’s and public defender’s offices were present from day one to support our efforts, especially Chief Deputy District Attorney Summer Clarke, Senior Public Defender Gloria Garcia, and Juvenile Probation Officer Tom Gallia. They graciously volunteer their time to the program to ensure its continued success. We are continually surprised at the number of community volunteers and providers who continuously reach out to us to offer their services to assist the youth and their families!

Our team now includes more than 12 volunteer organizations and providers such as applied behavioral analysis providers, autism treatment assistance program coordinators, Desert Regional Center coordinators, Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada educational advocates, psychosocial rehabilitation and basic skills training providers, and social program providers.

DAAY Court currently has over 20 active participants. We celebrated our 84th graduate in December! We look forward to expanding the court across Nevada, to ensure the success of one youth at a time.

If you have any questions or would like more information, please feel free to contact us at denningr@clarkcountycourts.us.

About the author

Judge Soonhee “Sunny” Bailey was elected to the Eighth Judicial District Court, Family Division in November of 2020. She created and presides over the DAAY Court program.

About the article

© 2024 Clark County Bar Association (CCBA). All rights reserved. No reproduction of any portion of this issue is allowed without written permission from the publisher. Editorial policy available upon request.

This article was originally published in the Communiqué (Feb. 2024), the official publication of the Clark County Bar Association. See https://clarkcountybar.org/about/member-benefits/communique-2024/communique-feb-2024/.

The articles and advertisements appearing in Communiqué magazine do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the CCBA, the CCBA Publications Committee, the editorial board, or the other authors. All legal and other issues discussed are not for the purpose of answering specific legal questions. Attorneys and others are strongly advised to independently research all issues.

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