AUSTIN -- 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 teenagers with longer and more violent criminal records.
Lawmakers debated the merits of the change at Thursday's hearing.
"It becomes a cost savings for us," said Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston. "And the kids are the ones being hurt."
Rep. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, attributed the declining state jail population to successful intervention by local officials, who now supervise the vast majority of young offenders through programs such as probation and deferred adjudication.
"I'm thinking maybe we got something right," he said. "I hope that's the case."
But 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.
"That gets worse as it goes along," said Nancy Arrigona, director of research for the Juvenile Justice Department, in an interview outside the hearing. "Mentally ill kids get detained at much higher rates."
Arrigona said the toll of mental illness among young offenders is particularly visible at the Corsicana Residential Treatment Center, the primary jail for mentally ill youths who have committed offenses.
"Assaults there are higher," she said. "They have so many issues and so much going on that they act out. They might not understand the rules. It's just difficult."