"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've 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."