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Judge shows mercy in DCF issue

He says contempt of court is inappropriate in the backlog of mentally ill inmates.

By CHRIS TISCH
Published December 13, 2006


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A circuit judge in Broward County on Tuesday refused to hold the Department of Children and Families in contempt of court for failing to pull mentally ill inmates out of county jails within the 15 days required by law.

The order by Judge Martin J. Bidwill contrasts with rulings by Pinellas Circuit Judge Crockett Farnell, who held DCF Secretary Lucy Hadi in contempt, fined her $80,000 and threatened to put her behind bars if she didn't move mentally ill inmates from the Pinellas jail and put them in mental health facilities.

"Contempt is not an appropriate sanction," Bidwill wrote in his order, which cites several appellate court rulings.

Gov. Jeb Bush, who had called Farnell's orders a judicial "temper tantrum," said he gave Bidwill "high marks for a reality check here."

"You can't hold someone in contempt if they don't have the ability to solve the problem," Bush added.

DCF officials said they do not have the beds nor the money to meet the 15-day deadline, which has created waiting lists that have swelled to more than 300 people. The average stay in jail for the inmates has stretched to three months, during which some inmates have harmed themselves. Jail officials have complained that the inmates tax their resources and staff.

Public defenders' offices statewide began petitioning judges to order DCF to follow the law.

Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender Bob Dillinger, whose office had a mentally ill client gouge out an eye while in jail waiting for a bed, asked Farnell to order DCF to follow the law or face consequences.

Farnell did just that.

Dillinger said Tuesday that he disagreed with the Broward judge's ruling. He also was upset over Bush's comments in support of that judge.

"The governor and his agencies simply don't want to spend money on the poor and the sick," Dillinger said. "They would rather give tax cuts to their rich cronies. And it's pathetic that that's what happened."

On Monday, Farnell disqualified himself from the case after DCF lawyers complained that he couldn't be fair because he had told the St. Petersburg Times that he would "love to" jail Hadi.

Hadi announced Dec. 1 that she would step down next month. She is scheduled for a hearing in a Pinellas courtroom Thursday.

On Tuesday, Bush said his staff is looking for ways to fund more beds.

"We're trying to help out Lucy," Bush said. "We'll let you know when we figure it out.

"We have a dilemma. We don't have the money to get people out of jails within 15 days as the law requires ... clearly criminal contempt discussion isn't part of the solution."

The mentally ill inmates are those designated by judges to be too sick to face a trial. They instead face a transfer to a state mental hospital, where they receive medication and counseling. They often become better and are returned for trial.

The number of commitments has spiked from 900 six years ago to 1,500 last year. The state has about 1,400 beds for mentally ill inmates and recently found $5-million to create 85 more. But that will only put a dent in the waiting list.

The Broward judge suggested that some mentally ill inmates could be placed in local treatment centers temporarily, according to the Miami Herald.

Dillinger said that plan wouldn't work because local treatment centers also are full.

"On weekends, people are laying in the lobbies," he said.

Times staff writer Alex Leary contributed to this report, which included material from the Associated Press. Chris Tisch can be reached at 727 892-2359 or tisch@sptimes.com.

[Last modified December 13, 2006, 01:07:25]


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