State Politics

Bill would keep mentally ill out of jail

State lawmakers are considering a sweeping bill that will help divert the mentally ill from Florida’s prisons into community-based treatment programs.

The legislation is long overdue, said Mary Ruiz, chief executive officer of Manatee Glens.

“Sheriff Steube is running a bigger psychiatric hospital than Manatee Glens,” said Ruiz, referring to the Manatee County Jail. “By not providing mental health services, we are using our jails as a default mental health treatment system. They are not designed to deliver treatment; it’s an expensive solution costing taxpayers a bundle that doesn’t get people the help they need.”

A bill proposed by the Department of Children and Families and Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, would set up a new delivery system of mental health care that would provide adequate prevention and treatment in the community, keeping the mentally ill out of the judicial system.

The numbers describe the problem: 20 percent of Floridians with mental illnesses are housed in the state’s jails and prisons. Of the approximately 600,000 individuals with mental illnesses in Florida, about 125,000 requiring immediate treatment are booked into jails and prisons annually.

“What we are doing is criminalizing the mentally ill,” Ruiz said. “If you don’t have adequate prevention and treatment in the community, people are jailed and then released and then jailed again.”

Chief Justice Peggy A. Quince of the Florida Supreme Court supports Fasano’s bill.

“By creating a more effective and responsive system of care that prevents unnecessary entry into the justice system, we will be contributing to the creation of a more sustainable and appropriate community-based care,” Quince said in a release Wednesday.

Currently, Florida spends more than $200 million annually, a third of all mental health dollars, to fund 1,700 state hospital beds serving people involved in the forensic mental health system, according to DCF.

Based on the increasing growth in the number of people with mental illnesses admitted to the criminal justice system, the Department of Corrections will need to increase bed capacity by the equivalent of one new prison per year over the next decade at a cost that will exceed $3.6 billion for new mental health beds and services. It is projected that by the end of this year, Florida will once again be at risk of running out of forensic treatment beds, requiring costly state emergency funding to address the problem.

Fasano said lawmakers cannot afford to put off investing in an overhaul of the mental health care system.

“Fiscally, we have no choice but to act,” Fasano said. “Morally, this course is also the humane thing to do.”

The bill will support the expansion of community-based diversion and re-entry initiatives such as mental health courts, pre-arrest jail diversion programs, law enforcement crisis intervention teams and re-entry services.

DCF Secretary George Sheldon called Florida’s current system of treating people with mental illness, “the definition of insanity.”

“With legislative action, we can actually save the state money while solving a crisis that has gone on far too long without a solution,” said Sheldon.

The timing is auspicious, says Ruiz. On Wednesday, the National Alliance on Mental Illness released its report card on mental health care in the United States.

Florida earned a “D,” slipping from the “C” the state earned in 2006.

“This grade is warning that Florida has lost ground,” said Marica Mathes, NAMI Florida Board of Directors in announcing the grade.

Ruiz realizes the overhaul proposals come at a time when Florida has no money. “But sometimes you need to invest money to save money,” Ruiz said. “I understand that Florida will need five new prisons by 2010 if current trends continue. We can better use those dollars to get people the treatment they need.”

Lawmakers also are considering other proposals to reduce the mentally ill population in Florida jails, Ruiz said.

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