Monday, November 19, 2007

Council seeks alternatives in treating the mentally ill

Circuit Judge Janet Ferris remembers a case when a mentally ill man was charged with battery on a law enforcement officer.

The man was sleeping on a bench at Florida State University when the officer came up him and told him he was trespassing. The man, thinking the officer was the devil and trying to hurt him, struggled with the officer.

He ended up in jail.

Ferris said she's concerned that many people who are mentally ill, like this man, end up languishing in the Leon County Jail without really getting the treatment they need.

"The county jail has become like a mental-health facility," Ferris said. "And that's hard because it's a jail. It's not a mental-health facility. So I think the idea is to try to move them out of the jail as quickly as possible."

The Criminal Justice Mental Health and Substance Abuse Advisory Council, created in mid-September, met last week to discuss its plans to create a mental health court to make treatment more accessible and effective for people who are mentally ill and to reduce their length of stay in the jail. Similar courts have been created in Miami-Dade, Sarasota and Gainesville.

"The big thing is linking them to services in the community," said Kendra Brown, court mental health coordinator. Such services include housing, transportation, treatment plans and medication.

A mental health court would put all criminal cases that involve mental health issues on the same docket, which would be heard by the same judge trained to deal with these issues, said Merribeth Bohanan, assistant public defender.

Council members say many of the mentally ill who have not received the treatment they need are repeat offenders and they place a strain on resources. This population is rapidly growing in Leon County.

In a report, the council showed that the jail's annual expenditures on mentally ill inmates increased from about $128,000 in 2004 to $162,000 in 2006.

In any given month between 20 and 30 percent of the jail's 1,200 inmates are treated by its mental health staff, said Colleen Meringolo, health services administrator for Prison Health Services, which has a contract with the jail. Their conditions range from depression to schizophrenia.

"We do not charge people for services," Meringolo said. "If they don't have the money, they don't have the money. We still see them."

In October, the jail spent about $16,000 on prescription drugs, she said. Staff members include a licensed psychiatrist, who works 12 hours a week, a licensed clinical social worker who works 40 hours a week and a mental health coordinator, who works 30 hours a week.

The council put together a state grant application, which it submitted Nov. 1. The members won't find out if they will receive any money until early next year, but they plan to move forward with the mental health court proposal with or without the money.

In order to establish the mental health court, the council will need Chief Judge Charles Francis to sign an administrative order.

Ferris said the mental health court would be similar to the drug court model in that it would put more of an emphasis on treatment.

"We're trying to lead them to sobriety as opposed to just punishment," she said.

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