Monday, April 12, 2010

Program would stop wasting money, lives

Florida spends more than a billion dollars a year warehousing people with mental illness in prisons, locked forensic treatment facilities and local jails. They are among the most wasteful dollars the state spends. Mentally ill defendants are provided treatment until they are competent to stand trial, then they are typically released only to be arrested again. An effort to change this paradigm has been in the works for years. On Tuesday, a Senate committee is expected to consider a pilot program to bring this population into highly managed community care. This an opportunity to stop wasting moneys and lives.

By using state resources differently, Florida's mentally ill residents can be treated and avoid the revolving door of jail and the streets. Under a plan proposed by the Department of Children and Families, the mentally ill accused of relatively low-level crimes would be diverted into locked community-based residential treatment facilities. Once stabilized, these individuals would be provided a continuum of care and monitoring in community-living settings.

Many mentally ill residents could live law-abiding lives if they had access to regular treatment and services. The DCF program would use case managers and other professionals to track their progress and help them obtain federal benefits to reach some level of self-sufficiency.

But DCF cannot launch its diversion experiment without changes to state law. The department needs the flexibility to shift up to 5 percent of funding from forensic treatment beds. It also needs permission to seek federal Medicaid dollars for indigent mentally ill criminal defendants in the program.

The Senate Criminal Justice Committee on Tuesday will consider a bill, SB 2612, that would create a forensic mental health probation and parole program in the Department of Corrections and authorize mental health courts throughout the state. Its sponsor, Sen. Ronda Storms, R-Brandon, should allow the changes that DCF seeks to be amended into her bill. That would get the pilot program moving this session.

A nudge from Senate President Jeff Atwater of North Palm Beach, who wants to be the state's next chief financial officer, also would help. Allowing this creative experiment would fit in nicely with a candidate for an office that looks out for Florida's long-term fiscal interests.

The mentally ill people who qualify for the diversion program would otherwise land in a state forensic hospital at a cost of more than $60,000. Then they would take a plea agreement — as roughly 80 percent do — and be released without any treatment or services. The sensible choice for Florida is to give the pilot program a try.

A St. Petersburg Times editorial
Published Friday, April 9, 2010

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