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    Lack of DCF beds strands man, 21, in jail

    The state says there is no space at the three hospitals for mentally ill criminal defendants. Last month 147 patients were held in jail.

    By CARY DAVIS, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published June 9, 2002


    Richard Knight has spent most of his life in mental hospitals. "I lost track at 168," Knight said of the number of times he's been involuntarily committed.

    Knight's mother said her 21-year-old son is exaggerating "a little bit. But he's right, he's been in many hospitals."

    A paranoid schizophrenic and manic depressive, Knight never had a problem getting into a treatment program for the mentally ill. Never had a problem, that is, until he got arrested in December on charges that he kicked police officers after they tried to stop him from committing suicide.

    Two months ago, a judge found Knight incompetent to stand trial. That triggered a state law that gives the Department of Children and Families 15 days to transport a mentally ill criminal defendant to a secure hospital for treatment.

    But DCF officials say they don't have a bed for Knight. And so, in violation of the law, Knight continues to be held in the county jail in Land O'Lakes, where treatment amounts to increasing the dosage of his medications.

    "His condition is getting worse," said his attorney, Paul Firmani, the chief public defender in Pasco. "Civilized societies are judged by how they treat the poor and the mentally ill. We're not doing a very good job."

    Firmani has asked Circuit Judge William Webb to hold DCF in contempt of court if the agency can't find room for Knight at one of the state's three hospitals for mentally ill criminal defendants.

    DCF officials, already under fire for losing track of a 5-year-old Miami girl, say they are not willfully ignoring a court order. They are simply overwhelmed with criminal defendants in need of treatment.

    Last month, according to DCF's own numbers, 147 mentally ill criminal defendants waited in Florida jails for a bed at a state hospital. At least 100 of those defendants had been in jail longer than the 15-day statutory limit.

    A DCF lawyer, addressing Knight's situation, wrote in court papers that a "number of factors, including the amount of funds appropriated by the Legislature," prohibit the agency from complying with state law.

    Civilized societies have recognized since the 1800s that mentally ill criminal defendants should be treated in hospitals for their diseases, not confined in jails and prisons. That philosophy is reflected in the United States' legal system.

    Defendants are deemed incompetent to stand trial if they don't understand the charges against them or cannot assist their lawyers. Defendants also can be found not guilty at trial by reason of insanity, a defense used successfully by John Hinckley Jr., who tried to assassinate President Ronald Reagan in 1981.

    Defendants found incompetent for trial in Florida are sent to one of three hospitals -- in Chattahoochee, Gainesville and Pembroke Pines. They are held until they are deemed fit for trial.

    The number of mentally ill defendants committed to state hospitals has risen dramatically in recent years. In fiscal year 1998-99, there were 863 forensic commitments in Florida. The figure rose to 1,106 in 2000-01.

    DCF, which oversees state mental hospitals, hasn't been able to keep pace. Before last year, the department had waited a decade for money to add beds to its hospitals for criminal defendants. The average wait for a bed ballooned to one month, double what the law requires.

    Last year, the Legislature allocated money for 30 additional beds. The average wait dropped almost immediately, nearly to 15 days, said John Bryant, chief of DCF's hospital programs. Now it is approaching one month again, he said.

    With another 25 beds on the way this year, Bryant said DCF has a chance to finally correct the problem. The agency also is converting 50 "low-risk" beds at other DCF-run mental hospitals to make room for patients who are criminal defendants, he said.

    "We're working real hard to develop some more capacity," Bryant said.

    Not hard enough, as far as Knight's mother is concerned.

    "I'm very aggravated," Margaret Knight said. "I'm fed up with the system. Richard doesn't need to be in jail. He needs medical attention. He needs therapy."

    DCF officials, citing confidentiality requirements, would not discuss Knight's case, including when a bed might become available.

    Knight was arrested on Dec. 27, 2001, by Port Richey police. He told officers he wanted to kill himself by injecting heroin, according to reports, and when police tried to detain him, he became violent, kicking officers and spitting at them, the reports state. He also kicked out a window in a police cruiser.

    It was his first arrest. Knight, in an interview at the county jail, said he suffered a seizure during the incident and doesn't remember what happened.

    "I know I'm facing charges," he said. "I know I could go to prison."

    Asked if he understood the legal system, his blue eyes bulged, and he pressed his shackled hands to his face. Then he laughed.

    He gave rambling answers to questions, shifting wildly between his suicide attempts, his violent upbringing, the mental hospitals, teenage crushes.

    "I feel like a . . . jigsaw puzzle," he said. "Yet I have a few missing pieces. Quite a few. I'm trying to find them."

    Most of what he says is true, his mother said. That his baby bottles were filled with beer. That he was beaten. And that now he needs treatment.

    "He won't eat," she said. "He's lost so much weight in jail. He doesn't think anyone's ever going to help him."

    The Public Defender's Office is trying to help. They've seen plenty of similar cases, and they're frustrated.

    "It's a significant statewide problem," said elected Pasco-Pinellas Public Defender Bob Dillinger, who has become a leading advocate for Florida's mentally ill defendants.

    That frustration has led to hardball tactics. This isn't the first time Dillinger's office has filed a motion to hold DCF in contempt of court. In fact, he said, it's become standard procedure in Pinellas. Every time a client in Pinellas is found incompetent, Dillinger's office immediately files a motion for contempt, knowing DCF won't find a bed within 15 days.

    Dillinger and public defenders around the state have discovered that beds suddenly open up when contempt hearings are set.

    The defendants, he said, "are always gone by the hearing. That's what it takes to get (DCF) moving. . . . Our goal is not to hold DCF in contempt. Our goal is to get mentally ill people out of jail."

    The contempt hearing in Knight's case could take place this week. At a hearing last week, DCF lawyer Frank Nagatani asked Judge Webb if agency administrators could testify by telephone from Tallahassee.

    The judge said no. "I think I'd like to stare these people in the eye," Webb said.

    Nagatani then got the judge's permission to cancel the contempt hearing if a bed was found for Knight.

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