Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Repeat Offenses in Texas Raise Questions Over Release of Mentally Ill Juveniles

From the NY Times:
Repeat Offenses in Texas Raise Questions Over Release of Mentally Ill Juveniles

Published: December 20, 2009

TYLER, Tex. (AP) — A 16-year-old former juvenile detainee was accused of stabbing a high school teacher to death with a butcher knife. Another teenager was convicted of killing a roofer during a robbery spree.

Both were released by the Texas Youth Commission because the agency was not equipped to treat their mental illnesses, and under the law, had to let them go.

The cases highlight what some juvenile justice experts say is a loophole in the way Texas treats under-age offenders with severe psychiatric issues. Data obtained by The Associated Press reveal that the commission has released more than 200 offenders because of mental health issues in the last five years and that more than one-fifth of them went on to commit new crimes, some of them violent.

“All these cases are failures where we should have done something different,” said Richard Lavallo, legal director for Advocacy Incorporated, an organization in Austin that helps children with disabilities.

In most states, young offenders are not discharged from custody because of mental illness unless they are being committed to hospitals. But under a 1997 law meant to keep mentally ill juveniles from being held in detention centers where they cannot get proper treatment, youths in Texas who are serving indeterminate sentences and who have completed their minimum required time in custody are released to parents or guardians.

While some experts said Texas should be commended for not warehousing such offenders where they cannot get treatment, they questioned the logic of releasing them without ensuring that they receive supervision.

“Without some requirement for supervision, it doesn’t seem like a sound policy to me,” said Gail Wasserman, a professor of clinical psychology at Columbia University and the director of its Center for the Promotion of Mental Health in Juvenile Justice.

The issue gained notoriety in September after the fatal stabbing of a special education teacher at John Tyler High School in Tyler. The teacher, Todd Henry, 50, was sitting at his desk in his classroom when he was attacked.

The Texas Youth Commission had released the boy accused of killing Mr. Henry in July because of multiple mental health issues, including schizophrenia, said his lawyer, Jim Huggler. The teenager, whom The A.P. was not identifying because he is a juvenile and has not been charged as an adult, had been committed in 2007 for aggravated assault.

Mr. Huggler said he had seen nothing to indicate that the boy’s family, which had moved to Tyler from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, had received a plan from officials on how to deal with his mental problems.

“This case is sad on so many levels,” he said.

The commission makes sure offenders released because of mental illness receive referrals to their local Mental Health and Mental Retardation centers. But there is nothing that requires the youths or their families to avail themselves of those services.

Cherie Townsend, the commission’s executive director, declined to comment about specific cases. But she acknowledged that it might be time to limit some of the releases for public safety reasons or require that some releases have conditions attached.

“We’ve got to find a middle ground where we assure public safety and accountability for actions that have taken place and at the same time find better ways to provide treatment for these youth,” Ms. Townsend said.

Any changes would have to be approved by the Legislature, which is not scheduled to meet again until January 2011.

Lawmakers did approve a measure in the spring that allows youths released from custody because of mental illness to receive case management services like those available to parolees.

But the author of the legislation, Representative Jim McReynolds, a Democrat, said the Tyler case had convinced him that the measure did not go far enough.

According to the youth commission, 206 juvenile offenders had been released in the last five years because of mental illness. Of those, 43 were incarcerated again. Most were returned to custody for burglary or robbery, but some were convicted of more serious offenses, including two for arson and two for sex crimes involving children.

Among those discharged was Jeremy Miera, 21, who is serving a life sentence for the fatal shooting of a 45-year-old roofer in May 2006.

Records provided to The A.P. by Mr. Miera’s family show that he was released on parole from a Texas Youth Commission facility in May 2005 and discharged entirely four months later for “inability to progress due to mental illness/retardation.”

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