Monday, March 23, 2009

Crime-reduction means changing attitudes and treatment

Of necessity, and with some common sense applied, Florida's way of dealing with inmates is changing.

Rather than build 19 new prisons at a cost of $100 million each over the next five years — the state's projected need — Department of Corrections Secretary Walter McNeil and other highly placed public state officials and the courts are working to change the lives of inmates through education and rehabilitation.

Their cost-saving goal is to build fewer prisons, redirect resources and be able to release those who aren't imprisoned for the most serious crimes with a far better chance of not re-offending and not returning, as about a third now do, to prison.

One avenue for change that's been proving successful here in Leon County emulates this call for change. That's the mental health court, which has for nearly three years been working to re-direct the lives of men and women who are charged with substance-abuse crimes by getting them into rehabilitation settings instead of cells.

Leon County Judge Jonathan Sjostrom told the editorial board of the Democrat on Thursday that the problem of jailing substance-abusers was becoming so undeniably large that law enforcement was first to call for relief. "They told us this is a jail, not a hospital," Mr. Sjostrum said, speaking of the Leon County Jail but knowing the situation is prevalent statewide. "But we'd found that, while there were many resources to fix things, the courtroom was an impediment," he said. Courts use a traditional criminal-justice model of dealing with offenders, he said, rather than recognizing and addressing the complex array of health problems and traumas that lead to the preponderance of drug-related crimes that crowd today's court dockets.

Legislation is being championed this session to continue this impulse to change the system. Mr. Sjostrum, as well as Dade County Judge Steven Leifman, special adviser to the Florida Supreme Court on criminal justice and mental health, are working with Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, sponsor of SB 2018, the Community Mental Health and Substance Abuse Treatment and Crime Reduction Act.

"The bill redirects resources from the criminal justice system to community-based care where people can be stabilized with medication and supports," George Sheldon, secretary of the Department of Children and Families, explained earlier this month. A national advocacy group recently gave Florida a "D" for its public mental health care system, which includes our habit of incarcerating people with mental illnesses and substance abuse problems, often on minor charges.

The evaluation by NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) was worse this year than in previous years, an indication of the steady decline in our approach to not only public safety but public wisdom.

"We need to face the fact that our current mental health system is in need of a major overhaul," said Mr. Fasano. Of some 600,000 individuals with mental illnesses in Florida, about 125,000 requiring immediate treatment are booked into jails and prisons annually and begin a downward spiral that cannot be broken with intervention and treatment.

"Fiscally we have no choice but to act," Mr. Fasano said. "Morally, this course is also the humane thing to do."

Key to the support of this bill, which enjoys bipartisan support, is that it is revenue-neutral, said Mr. Leifman. It moves money from incarceration to diversionary and rehabilitative programs such as the mental health court that being used in Leon County, and it amends the state's Medicaid plan so that 60 percent of the coordinated treatment efforts would come from federal Medicaid funds.

The legislation doesn't provide a pass for hardened criminals, said Mr. Leifman. "It is trying to decriminalize mental illness."

We urge lawmakers to support this exceptionally strong and commendable redirection of state policy.

An Editorial from the Tallahassee Democrat published March 23, 2009

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