Mentally ill juvenile offenders released because they can't be treated in custody will now receive court-ordered psychiatric treatment under an emergency measure adopted by the Texas Youth Commission.
The commission's board approved the measure, which will remain in effect for 120 days, at a meeting last month and hopes to make it permanent, agency spokesman Jim Hurley said Tuesday.
The rule is the commission's attempt to adjust its policies, which are governed by a 13-year-old law that requires the outright discharge of mentally ill offenders whose conditions cannot be treated in custody. In most states, juvenile offenders aren't released because of mental illness unless they are committed to hospitals.
Under the emergency measure, the commission must file an application for court-ordered inpatient or outpatient psychiatric treatment before a youth can be discharged for mental health reasons.
"This allows a controlling entity to have jurisdiction and ensure that (the offenders) are following up on the things that have been prescribed," Hurley said.
The measure also gives the commission's executive director, Cherie Townsend, the final say on whether an offender can be discharged under the law.
The board, in approving the measure, said change was necessary because of "a critical risk to public safety."
Texas' policy of releasing mentally ill juvenile offenders gained widespread attention in September when a 16-year-old boy was accused of fatally stabbing a high school special education teacher in Tyler.
The teen had spent two years in juvenile custody for aggravated assault but was discharged in July because of schizophrenia and other issues, said his attorney, Jim Huggler. The youth is undergoing treatment to determine his fitness to face legal proceedings, Huggler said.
The Associated Press found that the commission had released more than 200 offenders because of mental health issues over a five-year period and that more than one-fifth went on to commit new crimes, some of them violent. Among those released was a San Antonio teen who later was convicted of murdering a roofer during a robbery spree.
State Rep. Jim McReynolds, a Lufkin lawmaker who has taken an interest in the issue, said he's particularly encouraged by the provision requiring Townsend's approval for all discharges.
"She's going to have to look awfully closely to see that we don't just release a child back to the community and that there's the possibility for proper transitioning," he said.
McReynolds, who chairs the House Committee on Corrections, said he's still looking to have the law changed when the Legislature meets next year.
Ana Yanez-Correa, executive director of the Texas Criminal Justice Coaltion, said Townsend's more than 30 years as a juvenile justice administrator make her well-suited to decide which youths should be released under the law and which should remain in custody.
"I feel good about her reviewing these cases," said Yanez-Correa, whose Austin-based organization advocates for reforms in the juvenile and criminal justice systems. "If you were talking about a person who didn't have a record like she does, I might be more cautious."