Friday, April 11, 2008

Save money, cut crime; treat the mentally ill

It's stupid to recycle mentally ill people through Florida's criminal justice system when, for millions less, they could receive effective treatment that cuts the crime rate.

Florida spends about $250 million per year on 1,700 "forensic treatment beds" to basically warehouse people who are mentally incompetent to stand trial. The cost will keep going up. Department of Children and Families Secretary Bob Butterworth, whose department is required to deal with this problem, says, "Of all the money I've ever asked for in my political life, this is the most useless I've ever had to ask for." Mr. Butterworth has spent 35 years in public life.

It's "useless" because the patients generally are held until minimal treatment makes them technically "competent," at which point they usually reach a deal. After that, they are sentenced to time served, go back out on the streets with no more treatment and almost immediately get back in trouble with the law. Now Mr. Butterworth, a former sheriff, legislator, judge and state attorney general, has endorsed a program that he thinks will require him to ask for much less "useless" money. This week, the Florida House agreed with him.

The plan largely is the work of Miami-Dade County Judge Steven Leifman, who serves as a special adviser on criminal justice and mental health to the Florida Supreme Court. The House has agreed to spend $8 million for experimental programs in Escambia, Broward and Miami-Dade counties that will provide continuing treatment and supervision for people who previously would have been "kicked out the door." The initial goal, which may take years, is to convert 300 of the "forensic treatment beds" to the new treatment system, with savings projected at $48 million.

Before society became more enlightened about mental illness, Judge Leifman notes, many mentally ill people ended up in jail. Mental hospitals replaced jails but failed from lack of expertise and money. "Two hundred years have passed," Judge Leifman says, "and the jails once again are the primary place" for holding the mentally ill. Mr. Butterworth's predecessor, under orders from then-Gov. Bush, refused a court order to release mentally ill inmates from the Pinellas County jail.

The number of people declared unfit to stand trial has doubled in five years. Treating them the old way, as Mr. Butterworth and Judge Leifman say, is "literally insane." Now, the Senate needs to join the Florida House in a long-overdue demonstration of sanity.

A Palm Beach Post Editorial published Friday, April 11, 2008

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