By CHARLES ELMORE
Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 11, 2009
Florida will have to spend an estimated $3.6 billion to build new prisons if the number of people with mental illness behind bars keeps growing as fast as it has, a South Florida judge said Wednesday.
"It's madness," said Steve Leifman, a Miami-Dade County judge who serves as special adviser on criminal justice and mental health to the Florida Supreme Court.
"The state can't afford to keep doing it this way."
The state's treatment of people with mental illness earned a D on a national advocacy group's report card Wednesday, down from a C three years ago.
Florida has one of the largest uninsured populations in the nation, 3.7 million, but the state is falling behind, according to a National Alliance on Mental Illness "Grading the States" 2009 report.
Leifman supports a state Senate bill to rechannel existing resources to community-based programs. These would be designed to provide more effective treatment for mentally ill people who commit relatively minor crimes — not just stabilize them for court appearances. The number of Floridians with mental illness in prison has grown 145 percent to 17,000 in the past 10 years, he said.
A commission has been studying criminal justice and mental health issues in Palm Beach County and plans a summit in coming weeks.
"Hopefully, the NAMI report will draw attention to some important issues," saidMargi Silberman, chief executive officer of the Mental Health Association of Palm Beach County.
Taxpayer advocates said the issue is not a simple matter of being for or against mental health treatment.
The state could do a better job of trimming bureaucratic waste in a range of health, educational and other programs, freeing up money for other priorities, Florida TaxWatch President Dominic M. Calabro said.
"If the state was a better steward, they would have more money to spend," Calabro said.
In Tallahassee, Florida Department of Children and Families Secretary George Sheldon said he supports the community-based treatment bill, SB 2018. On Wednesday, he called the current system "the definition of insanity."
Florida is one of 12 states whose treatment of the mentally ill received a lower grade than it did in 2006, when NAMI issued its first report card.
Florida ranks next to last among the states, only ahead of Arizona, in the number of state and community psychiatric beds per 1,000 adults with serious mental illness, while state programs to cover the uninsured often exclude mental-health and substance-abuse treatment, the report said.
Emergency rooms, the criminal justice system and families are frequently left to "shoulder the burden of responding to people in crisis," NAMI Executive Director Michael J. Fitzpatrick wrote.