The number of accused felons ruled mentally incompetent for trial has doubled over five years, crowding Florida institutions with the most expensive type of offenders at a time of severe budget restraints, according to a new legislative study.
"I think it's absolutely nuts that we spend approximately $250 million a year to maintain approximately 1,707 forensic beds so we can stabilize people to the point that we can teach them what a courtroom is," Department of Children and Families Secretary Bob Butterworth said Monday. "To keep doing that is the definition of insanity."
The House Health Care Council is scheduled today to consider a pilot program in Escambia, Miami-Dade and Broward Counties to get more mentally ill offenders into treatment, rather than prisons. Butterworth, a former attorney general and circuit judge, said his goal is to reduce forensic beds by 300 in six years.
OPPAGA estimated that 2,123 people were found incompetent for trial last fiscal year, compared to 1,061 in 2002-03. The report said 23 percent of inmates in county jails and 16 percent in state prisons "have serious mental illnesses."
"This report underscores the seriousness of the issue, the need to address it thoughtfully and the extreme costs we are facing in the long term if solutions are not found," said Chief Justice R. Fred Lewis, who last year created a multi-agency task force to get the mentally ill out of jails and into treatment.
Miami-Dade County Judge Steven Leifman, who headed that effort, said he will get copies of the report to the House council considering legislation to implement the task force recommendations today. Leifman said there is $8 million in the House budget but no money in the Senate for diverting mentally disturbed offenders to treatment.
"This just highlights everything we've been saying," said Leifman. "It's very, very difficult to get any money but this may be the only new funding to come out of the Legislature, or one of the only new funding issues. But the cost of not addressing this is much too high."
The new analysis said 5.8 out of every 1,000 felony charges resulted in an incompetency finding five years ago but 9.2 per 1,000 did last fiscal year.
"This increase suggests that individuals with mental illness are coming into contact more frequently with the criminal justice system," said the report. "This reflects the de-institutionalization of persons with mental illness. Florida, like most states, has closed psychiatric hospitals in order to treat persons with mental illness in the community, based on the theory that persons with severe mental illness could function in community settings with appropriate social and psychiatric support systems."
Offenders considered a danger to themselves or others can be committed at five institutions — operated by either the Agency for Persons with Disabilities, for those with developmental disorders, orby the Department of Children and Families, for the mentally ill. Last fiscal year, OPPAGA said, courts sent 1,396 defendants to DCF facilities and 118 to APD for "competency restoration" treatment.
Incompetent offenders who are not considered dangerous can be "conditionally released" to community-based care as outpatients. OPPAGA estimated 1,431 mentally ill defendants were sent to community-based "competency restoration" programs, rather than being confined to institutions by DCF, but APD "is unable to provide complete data" on the number of developmentally disabled offenders getting outpatient care.
Those who are found to be dangerous but incompetent for trial are kept indefinitely.
"We're getting very close to capacity," said Butterworth. "We're working with sheriffs and public defenders and the courts to move them in and out as fast as we can, to get them competent for trial if possible."
By Bill Cotterell
FLORIDA CAPITAL BUREAU POLITICAL EDITOR