Advocate editorial board opinion: Making mentally ill people criminals not solution

The Advocate's recent story about Jeremy Weaver (front page, Oct. 16) is a case study for the criminalization of people who have mental illness, a problem we have pressed for more public awareness.

Adopted when Weaver was 4 months old, his adoptive parents were unaware that he was a probable victim of fetal alcohol syndrome. Now, at 18 years old, he has an IQ of 55, gets into trouble and is easily manipulated, too. Weaver is severely mentally ill.

He is contained in the Victoria County Jail because there are no facilities here in Victoria or the area that could accommodate Weaver, who has second-degree felony charges of indecency with a child against him.

Then there is the fact that hospital beds for the mentally ill have dwindled from 340 per 100,000 population in 1955 to 12 currently, according to a study conducted by the Treatment Advocacy Center. So where do these mentally ill patients end up? They are placed in county jails, a more expensive option than the Legislature funding psychiatric beds or mental illness health care.

Again, in fact, the Legislature cut $15 billion over the next two years, affecting all state agencies, including mental health service - impressive, but counterproductive and more expensive in the long run, according to Ana Yáñez-Correa, executive director of the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition.

In November 2010, the Victoria College Lyceum was host to Pete Earley, who wrote the book, "Crazy." In the book, Earley tells the story of his son who started showing symptoms of severe mental disorder in college. His son was diagnosed with a bipolar disorder, but Earley was unable to do much because his son was considered an adult - patient's rights. Earley took a long trip through the nation's mental health care morass.

Earley wrote in an Advocate guest column:

"In Texas today, the odds of an individual with a mental disorder ending up in jail - rather than in a hospital - are 7.8 to one. That's crazy. A 2008 study, found that 1,900 of the 11,000 inmates (17.3 percent) in the Harris County Jail were on psychotropic medications, costing that jail and taxpayers $24 million per year and none of them was getting any treatment to get better. That's crazy. The same study quoted a Harris County official saying, 'The jails have become the psychiatric hospitals of the United States.' That's crazy."

We must continue to work for a sane answer. Obviously, the Legislature should take another look at mental health care in Texas.

And as Earley wrote: "...because in the long run, effective community mental health treatment has been shown to save tax dollars, in part, by stopping the needless criminalization of persons with mental disorders."

We wholeheartedly concur.

This editorial reflects the views of the Victoria Advocate's editorial board.