Thursday, May 10, 2007

Most mentally ill prisoners moved into treatment facilities, Butterworth says

By Phil Davis The Associated Press

May 10, 2007

CLEARWATER · Department of Children & Families Secretary Bob Butterworth told a judge Wednesday that the agency is two months ahead of schedule on a court-ordered plan to get mentally ill inmates out of county jails and into treatment facilities.

Twenty-eight inmates are awaiting transfer to mental health treatment facilities in Florida jails, down from 295 on Jan. 1, Butterworth said. He said no inmates are waiting for treatment longer than the 15 days required by Florida law.

"We were able to do that, literally, yesterday," Butterworth said. "It used to take an average of 72 days from the time someone was actually declared to be incompetent to where they actually came into the state system. Now it is five days."

Butterworth's predecessor, Luci Hadi, and her staff had clashed with judges over the agency's failure to comply with the law that says an inmate declared incompetent to stand trial must be taken to a state hospital within 15 days.

The battle came to a head late last year when Pinellas Circuit Judge Crockett Farnell, now retired, threatened to jail Hadi for contempt.

Farnell removed himself from the case after telling reporters he would "love to" jail Hadi for violating his court orders. Then-Gov. Jeb Bush accused Farnell of throwing a judicial "temper tantrum." The DCF challenged Farnell's ability to objectively hear the case.

Pinellas County Public Defender Bob Dillinger said the political clash underscored the need for an independent judiciary.

"I know Judge Farnell took some shots from our previous governor, but what was right was done," Dillinger said. "And that's why we're here today."

Butterworth, a former Broward sheriff and Florida attorney general, credited Farnell with breaking the legal deadlock.

Gov. Charlie Crist ordered Butterworth to end the fight. State lawmakers had already approved $16.6 million for new treatment facilities.

"I think this is overwhelming evidence that we all accomplish a whole lot more when we work together than when we work against each other," said Circuit Judge Robert J. Morris, who is now supervising the case. "This is probably the best example I've seen in a long time."

Dillinger said the settlement is only the first step in improving Florida's treatment of the mentally ill.

"The Legislature is going to have to pony up and help us out there," Dillinger said. "If we can get the mental health system back on its feet, we can avoid a lot of these people being put into these very expensive state institutions."

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