Athens Review, Athens, Texas

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February 14, 2013

For young offenders, a troubling statistic

Mental illness increases at Texas youth facilities

Athens — AUSTIN, Texas — Young offenders with mental illnesses now outnumber youths who are gang members at juvenile jails in Texas, according to new figures that justice officials submitted to state lawmakers Thursday.

The rate of young offenders diagnosed as being mentally ill has risen to 56 percent in 2013, compared to confirmed gang membership at the lockups, which has remained relatively steady at 54 percent.

If a young offender has a mental illness and belongs to a gang, he is counted as being in both populations, officials said.

The figures from the Texas Juvenile Justice Department show that 50 percent of young offenders at the facilities had mental illnesses in 2012, and just 39 percent in 2007.

“The needs of these youth are greater now,” said Michael Griffiths, director of the Juvenile Justice Department, during testimony at a House budget subcommittee hearing Thursday.

The numbers reflect a shifting challenge for Griffiths’ agency, which admitted 1,073 youths into six state jails in 2012.

Among those newly committed to state jails, the number of those with an intensive need for mental health treatment rose at a rate of 113 percent over the past three years, agency officials reported, surpassing the increase in treatment needs for substance abuse and violent behavior.

Since 2008, when lawmakers overhauled the juvenile justice system in response to pervasive reports of physical and sexual abuse, the responsibility for early intervention has shifted from state to local officials.

As a result, commitments of youths to state jails have declined by 65 percent over the past five years, creating a smaller population of older teens with longer and more violent criminal records.

Even at the local level, diagnoses of mental illness are rising sharply, with the rate of mental illness among juvenile offenders on community-supervised probation rising from 20 percent in 2007 to 37 percent last year. It surpassed the rate of similarly situated young offenders receiving drug and alcohol abuse treatment.

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