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Loophole Lets Mentally Ill Texas Juveniles Go Free

The AP via YellowBrix

December 22, 2009

TYLER, Texas — A 16-year-old former juvenile detainee is accused of stabbing a high school teacher to death with a butcher knife. Another teen was convicted of killing a roofer during a 30-minute robbery spree.

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

The cases highlight what some juvenile justice experts say is a loophole in the way Texas treats underage 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 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 of Advocacy Inc., an Austin organization that helps children with disabilities.

In most states, youthful offenders aren’t 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 can’t get proper treatment, Texas youths serving indeterminate sentences who have completed their minimum required time in custody are released to their parents or guardians.

While some experts said Texas should be commended for not warehousing such offenders where they can’t get treatment, they questioned the logic of releasing them without ensuring 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 with the fatal stabbing of a 50-year-old special education teacher at John Tyler High School in Tyler. The teacher, Todd Henry, was sitting at his desk in his classroom when he was attacked.

The Texas Youth Commission discharged the boy accused of killing Henry in July because he had been diagnosed with multiple mental health issues, including schizophrenia, according to his attorney, Jim Huggler. The teen, who the AP is not identifying because he is a juvenile and has not been charged as an adult, had been committed in 2007 for aggravated assault.

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

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


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