Tuesday, April 10, 2007

A Florida Injustice

April 10, 2007
A Florida injustice

Lockup in lieu of treatment for mentally ill inmates

Here's a dose of grim reality: One of the nation's largest psychiatric facilities is in South Florida -- and it's not a hospital. It's the Miami-Dade County Jail.

Florida law-enforcement agencies arrest more than 70,000 mentally ill people each year, and house most in jails and prisons. The cost of housing them is significant -- upwards of $300 a day per inmate by one estimate. Of far greater importance is the injustice of imprisoning people for crimes they might not understand, in conditions that are almost certain to exacerbate their illness. In a Clearwater jail, a mentally ill inmate gouged out his eyes while awaiting transfer to a state forensic hospital. In Escambia County, two inmates died.

Jail officials routinely take away psychiatric medication, putting inmates at greater risk of suicide or deterioration. Lacking proper facilities, some jails house mentally ill inmates in close-security cells or use harsh restraints, also likely to worsen existing mental problems.

Some inmates aren't competent to stand trial, and remain in state custody even though they're charged with minor offenses that would otherwise merit a fine or probation. State law says prisoners in this condition are supposed to be transferred within 15 days to a state hospital. Last year, a series of lawsuits exposed how blatantly state officials were violating that requirement: More than 300 inmates were languishing in jails, some for months. The matter came to a head when a Pinellas County judge sanctioned then Department of Children and Families Secretary Lucy Hadi with contempt of court and fined her $80,000.

Last week, Hadi's successor, Bob Butterworth, stood with Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice R. Fred Lewis, Lt. Gov. Jeff Kottkamp and other state officials as Lewis announced the search for a better way. One especially encouraging note was the inclusion of Department of Juvenile Justice Secretary Walter McNeil, an acknowledgement by these state leaders that Florida must also do a better job in handling troubled youth who run afoul of the law.

The chief justice appointed veteran Miami-Dade County Judge Steve Leifman to lead a study of mental illness in the criminal justice system, recommending alternatives that might keep some mentally ill people out of jail and refer others to more humane treatment alternatives.

If anything, Lewis' initiative is overdue. Many Florida counties, including Broward, Duval and St. Lucie, have already acknowledged the inherent injustices that arise when mentally ill people are shuffled through the criminal justice system. Some established separate courts that handle only inmates with psychiatric problems; others are building separate facilities to get those inmates out of county jail.

Volusia County has been eyeing the latter course for the past few years, and is currently negotiating to buy a facility owned by Act Corp. County Chairman Frank Bruno said Friday he hopes to have a deal ready for County Council consideration in a few days.

Leifman's study can bolster public support of efforts such as these. With its conclusions, local officials and the courts should be able to make a compelling appeal for legislative changes to bring Florida closer to its promise of justice for all.

© 2007 News-Journal Corporation. ® http://www.news-journalonline.com/.

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