Mentally ill inmates to get help

Published January 11, 2007

TALLAHASSEE - Prodded by an outraged Pinellas judge, the Legislature on Wednesday allocated nearly $17-million to move mentally ill patients from jails to treatment programs.

The stopgap measure will pay for 373 more treatment beds to ease a statewide backlog of criminal defendants found incompetent to stand trial or not guilty by reason of insanity.

"The fix is here," said the incoming secretary of the Department of Children and Families, Bob Butterworth.

With the state's 1,449 treatment beds filled to capacity, many inmates languish in county jails, despite a state law that requires them to be offered treatment within 15 days of being declared mentally incompetent.

The Department of Children and Families said the waiting list jumped by an unprecedented 16 percent this year.

At a special meeting, the 14-member Legislative Budget Commission voted to shift the extra money from a hospital inpatient services account that has had lower-than-expected caseloads so far this year.

The $16.6-million set aside Wednesday will pay for the beds only through June 30, when the current fiscal year ends.

DCF will add 233 beds at five state-run mental health treatment centers and will contract for another 140 less restrictive beds at local residential treatment programs.

Inmates will be sent to wherever the first available bed can be found, with nonviolent inmates sent to less restrictive sites.

"They will go where they can get services the quickest," said DCF spokeswoman Erin Geraghty.

Wednesday's vote set in motion a much bigger financial commitment by legislators.

Butterworth served notice that he will ask for $48.5-million more to continue the same number of new beds for a full year starting July 1.

Pinellas Circuit Court Judge Crockett Farnell found DCF in contempt of court in October and imposed $80,000 in fines on the beleaguered agency.

Decrying what he called the "arrogant activity" of state officials, the judge threatened to jail former DCF Secretary Lucy Hadi. That prompted former Gov. Jeb Bush to accuse the judge of a "temper tantrum."

But the judge's criticism brought a quick promise of more funding from the Legislature, and Butterworth cited criticism by Farnell, among others.

"As we know, the judges in the state are frustrated, as you are," Butterworth told lawmakers in what was just his third day as DCF secretary. "They've taken some action to get our attention - and they obviously have."

Records provided by the agency show that as early as 2002, DCF sought more money for treatment beds for the mentally ill. But the requests were repeatedly whittled down by Gov. Bush's office.

Gov. Charlie Crist, who took office Jan. 2 and inherited the backlog from Bush, praised the Legislature's action. "It sounds like the right thing to do to me," he said.

Crist said he expects lawmakers will find the additional $48.5-million to provide bed space on an annualized, or year-round, basis. "Don't they have a duty to?" he asked.

Butterworth, himself a former circuit judge, said former officials were wrong to question Judge Farnell's actions.

"You don't ignore a judge's order," Butterworth said. "I would not recommend it, and it appears that's what happened in Pinellas County."

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or 850 224-7263.