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Idea may ease backlog of mentally ill inmates

Up to $16.6-million may be used to move inmates from jails to hospitals.

Published December 21, 2006


TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Jeb Bush said Thursday that he wants to use $16.6-million to create 373 additional mental health beds, a move that would help alleviate a backlog of mentally ill inmates languishing in jails.

The Legislative Budget Commission is expected to approve the idea at an emergency meeting next month, which Bush urged leaders in the House and Senate to schedule to address the crisis.

Many of the about 300 mentally ill jail inmates awaiting treatment have been in jail much longer than the 15 days allowed by state law. The new beds should become available in the next five months.

The money comes from unspent dollars from the state’s general revenue fund, said Alia Faraj, a Bush spokeswoman.

“We are addressing this problem as quickly as we can,” Faraj said. “This would immediately allow the Department of Children and Families to put beds online.”

The $16.6-million will pay for 223 secure forensic beds in state mental hospitals, which are used to treat criminal defendants who have been declared incompetent for trial or legally insane. Another 150 beds are part of community-based treatment programs that can serve less severely ill people who otherwise might take up a more expensive secure bed.

The situation came to a head when Pinellas Circuit Judge Crockett Farnell charged Department of Children and Families Secretary Lucy Hadi with contempt of court and threatened to jail her if the agency didn’t remove mentally sick inmates from the Pinellas jail.

The DCF, which is charged with caring for the state’s mentally ill, is required by state law to transfer inmates from jails to mental hospitals within 15 days after a judge declares them incompetent for trial.

But the agency was taking an average of three months to remove the inmates. The wait list grew to more than 300 people.

The DCF said it couldn’t follow court orders to remove the inmates because it didn’t have enough beds or the money to create more.

In the meantime, some jail inmates harmed themselves, including two who gouged out their own eyes. Local jails complained about having to care for sick inmates who strained their resources.

Advocates for the mentally ill accused the DCF and Bush of underfunding mental health programs. They were particularly critical of Bush after DCF budget figures released this week showed the agency requested additional funding as far back as 2002 but received only a tiny fraction of its requests.

While the $16.6-million will bring the new beds online, DCF officials will have to ask the governor’s office to seek additional funding from the Legislature to operate the beds in the next budget cycle.

Advocates for the mentally ill said the state also needs to beef up community-based programs that can reach people before they become so mentally ill that they need expensive treatment in state hospitals.

“The crisis is bigger than just these beds,” said Michele Saunders, state coordinator of Florida Partners in Crisis, which advocates for people with mental illness.

“The beds are a symptom of a bigger crisis. Our system has been so inadequately funded for the last two or three decades, and yet the population just continues to grow in Florida,” Saunders said.

[Last modified December 21, 2006, 22:05:07]

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