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Loophole frees mentally ill youth offenders

Recent slaying cases highlight the complexities of a 1997 law meant to keep mentally ill juveniles from being held in detention centers where they can't get proper treatment.
Texas Youth Offenders
In this undated file photo provided by Jan Henry, her husband Todd Henry is shown playing a guitar in Tyler, Texas. Todd Henry, a special education teacher, was fatally stabbed by a student at the school.Jan Henry / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

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 psychiatric 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.

'Sad on so many levels'
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.

The commission makes sure offenders discharged because of mental illness receive referrals to their local mental health/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 it may be time to limit some of the discharges for public safety reasons or require that some be tied to conditions.

"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," she said.

Any changes would have to be approved by the Legislature, which doesn't meet again until 2011.

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

But the author of the legislation, Rep. Jim McReynolds, D-Lufkin, said the Tyler case has convinced him that the measure doesn't go far enough.

"This has to be looked at much more globally than a little quick fix," he said.

According to the youth commission, 206 juvenile offenders have been released in the last five years due to mental illness. Of those, 43 have been re-incarcerated. 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 the offenders who have been discharged is Jeremy Miera, 21, who is serving a lifetime prison sentence for the fatal shooting of a 45-year-old roofer in May 2006.

Prosecutors said Miera and two other teens drove around San Antonio looking for people to rob. Miera was convicted of shooting the roofer, and another of the teens pleaded guilty to shooting an off-duty Beeville police officer who was in San Antonio to attend a National Guard function.

Records provided to the AP by Miera's family show 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." It was his second stint in juvenile detention after being originally committed at 15 for robbery and being returned for fighting at school.

While in juvenile custody, Miera was diagnosed with depressive disorder. His parole included intensive surveillance and conditions that required him to seek employment, do community service, remain at home in the evening and continue taking the antidepressant Prozac.

Lavallo, the Austin attorney, said using the law to discharge an offender from parole "makes no sense" because it takes away state services as well as supervision.

Miera's sister, Elizabeth, said her family was "astonished" at the abruptness of his discharge and that authorities provided no direction for dealing with his illness. She said the situation was particularly confusing for her mother, who struggles to understand English.

"My mom and my brother thought everything was OK because he just got released," she said. "We never thought we would actually need to nip (a problem) in the bud."