AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — More than half of the young people in Texas' youth prisons have a moderate or high need for mental health care, and officials should improve their early intervention efforts to help those kids before they end up behind bars, the head of a new state agency told lawmakers Tuesday.
Cherie Townsend, executive director of the Texas Juvenile Justice Department, said more than 52 percent of teens and other youngsters held at the state's six juvenile detention facilities have been diagnosed with at least moderate mental health problems.
Including those with at least some kind of mental health care needs would make that tally much higher, she said.
"The numbers are increasing and the percentages are increasing," Townsend told members of the Texas House Corrections Committee, referring to the number of juvenile detainees who have mental health problems and the proportion they make up of the state's total youth population at detention facilities.
Townsend's department was created after the Legislature voted last year to merge the Texas Youth Commission, which had run the prison system for teens, and the Texas Juvenile Probation Commission, which had been in charge of county-run, youth probation programs.
Supporters said the merger could save Texas as much as $150 million in the first two years of the new department's existence, while also improving mental health and rehabilitation programs for troubled youth.
Townsend, who was appointed by Republican Gov. Rick Perry and was former head of the Texas Youth Commission, said the new agency's board has met four times since Dec. 1. It will transfer $1.5 million over the next six months into pilot programs designed to study the effectiveness of youth early-intervention programs.
"It's been a very hectic board," Townsend said. "But they've had a lot of business to do and they've done it."
Lawmakers heard testimony Tuesday on the merger, successful early-intervention programs and the mental health problems of teens already at detention facilities. Rep. Charles Perry suggested authorities might be classifying too many young people as having mental health problems.
"I'm a little nervous about the discussion," said Perry, a Lubbock Republican, "because I know kids that act out that have no mental health issues, and just act out because they act out.
"What I'm hearing today seems to be a very strong push to move from a behavioral and environmental issue ... to a mental health issue. I think we have to be very careful that we don't overreact."
Texas' youth corrections system has undergone major reforms since neglect and sexual abuse allegations surfaced in 2007. Advocacy groups say they have anecdotal reports that youth-on-youth assaults have increased dramatically at juvenile detention facilities since the reforms began.
But Jerry Madden, chairman of the House Corrections Committee, bristled at such suggestions. He said the reforms reduced the youth population at detention centers statewide by 67 percent. A larger percentage of the total population are now youths convicted of felonies, who are more likely to be violent, he said.
"We kept some of the tougher kids," he said. "We knew the percentages were going to go up based on who we kept in there."