AUSTIN — The Texas Youth Commission will stop releasing young offenders who are too mentally ill to rehabilitate until the agency is sure they’re receiving proper treatment in the community, officials said Tuesday.
Dozens of juvenile offenders with serious mental illness are released from TYC lock-ups every year because they’re too sick to treat — not because they’re no longer a threat to the community. In the last five years, the agency has discharged hundreds of youth under this mental illness statute.
One was a schizophrenic and psychotic 16-year-old who fatally stabbed a Tyler high school teacher in September, just months after his release from the TYC.
TYC officials say state law requires them to discharge juveniles who are mentally ill or profoundly disabled if they’ve completed their minimum sentence and aren’t benefiting from rehabilitation programs. Of the 206 youth offenders they’ve released under this provision since 2005, 20 percent have been recommitted to either the TYC or an adult lock-up.
Until this spring, a youth discharged for mental illness wasn’t eligible for specialized psychiatric services in the community. Enter Rep. Jim McReynolds, D-Lufkin, who last session shepherded a bill providing reentry services and health care referrals to youths discharged for mental illness. That care is being provided by the Texas Correctional Office of Offenders with Medical or Mental Impairment (TCOOMMI).
Prior to the bill “the treatment youth received out in the community was sporadic,” TYC spokesman Jim Hurley said. Hurley said with the McReynolds bill, the TYC can now refer kids with mental health diagnoses to care providers in their communities.
The legislation fills a gaping hole, but advocates say it isn’t foolproof: It’s tough to force youth and their guardians to participate with treatment plans or fill prescriptions. The mentally disturbed teenager who killed his Tyler teacher was discharged from the TYC after McReynolds’ measure went into effect.
Hurley said Tuesday that the agency will no longer discharge mentally ill youth until it finalizes its arrangements for providing care in the community. He said the pull-back was not a direct result of the Tyler case, and said he couldn't confirm that the Tyler youth was ever in TYC custody.
“It’s just bad policy to have a youth identified as dangerous enough to be incarcerated at the TYC, and then to let them go with nothing,” said Dennis Borel, executive director of the Coalition of Texans with Disabilities. “Aftercare, treatment in the community — it has to be compulsory.”
Despite the state’s discharge rules, the TYC routinely rehabilitates youth with mental illness, providing counseling and psychiatric care. In 2008, Hurley said, 32 percent of the agency’s commitments had serious mental health problems; 20 percent had IQs below 80.
“For the kids who suffer from severe mental illness, it’s a shame they end up in the TYC to begin with,” said Ana Yanez-Correa, executive director of the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition. “My fear is that [the Tyler case] will be used as an example to not have anyone paroled out, when the truth is we just need better services.”