Partners, not rivals


Published May 5, 2007

The spirit of cooperation between former political opponents and among branches of government that has been fostered by Gov. Charlie Crist is paying dividends. According to Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender Bob Dillinger, his office's efforts to assist the mentally ill who have been caught up in the criminal justice system are no longer being opposed or obstructed by the state.

Thanks largely to the leadership of Bob Butterworth, Crist's secretary of the Department of Children and Families, there is now communication and collaboration in quickly getting these mentally troubled inmates who are incompetent to stand trial into an appropriate placement setting, whether that be in community control or a state hospital.

This intelligent and compassionate approach will ultimately save Florida taxpayers money while maintaining public safety. It is certainly a far cry from the prior DCF administration, which was facing contempt charges and fines for failing to move mentally ill inmates out of local jails and into mental health facilities within the law's 15-day limit. Today, Dillinger says things "couldn't be better" with DCF. How refreshing.

Carrying this spirit of cooperation forward, Butterworth, Lt. Gov. Jeff Kottkamp as well as officials from the state's corrections and juvenile justice departments were on hand for a news conference last month to announce a new initiative on the mentally ill. Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice R. Fred Lewis called the conference to announce the appointment of a special adviser on criminal justice and mental health. Judge Steve Leifman of Miami-Dade County, will spend the next couple of months studying the issue of the mentally ill who come in contact with the criminal justice system. He will recommend ways that the courts and the system in general can better respond to this population, estimated at 70, 000 annually.

Lewis is to be commended for seeing the need for "joint problem-solving" in this difficult area. An effort like this also would not be successful without the sincere commitment of the executive branch. To see key players at state agencies throwing their support behind a judicial initiative, is to realize that there is a sea change under way. Maybe our state's limited resources will start to go toward evidence-based approaches to solving problems, rather than expensive turf wars.

It has been a long time since Florida public officials in various branches and levels of government offered each other goodwill and a desire to work in a partnership toward mutual goals. Everyone will benefit from this attitude adjustment, particularly the state's most vulnerable populations.