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Threat could bring five years
Mental illness led her to threaten Bush, a woman says in court.
By ABBIE VANSICKLE, Times Staff Writer
Published November 28, 2007
TAMPA - Delores Jean Baines told a judge that she understood what she did wrong.
"The threat I made to President Bush," she replied to the judge's question.
The 45-year-old homeless woman, who suffers from paranoid schizophrenia, pleaded guilty Tuesday to federal charges of threatening the president.
She faces up to five years in federal prison for a letter she mailed to the White House in July 2006, telling the president she bought a gun, that he lived like a king, that she hated him.
A sentencing date had not yet been set.
Baines told the court she wrote the letter when she was struggling with mental illness, employed but living "outside."
"I wrote it during the time when I couldn't get back up on my feet," she told the judge.
After Baines entered the guilty plea, Assistant Federal Public Defender Adam Allen said he was frustrated by a situation he sees over and over with clients who are mentally ill.
"I think it's a sad state of affairs," he said. "We live in one of the wealthiest countries in the world, and yet the criminal justice system is the only place where we attempt to deal with this."
It's likely to be a costly remedy.
The average cost to clothe, feed and house someone in federal prison for a year? $24,440.
That's according to Mike Truman, a spokesman for the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Medication, too, is paid for through tax dollars, he said.
The average cost per year of medication for Baines? About $2,000.
That's a rough estimate, based on costs for her medication from Tampa General Hospital's outpatient pharmacy, which charges less than most pharmacies. It also estimates the doses Baines takes of Prolixin, Cogentin and Benadryl, the drugs her attorney told the judge help Baines deal with her mental illness.
The fact that imprisoning a mentally ill person costs more than providing mental health care came as no surprise to Ron Honberg, legal director for the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
"It's a penny-wise, pound-foolish approach," Honberg said. "The best way to prevent this behavior from occurring in the future is with treatment. It's not just for humanitarian reasons. It makes sense from a public safety standpoint. It makes sense from an economic standpoint."
Honberg said that estimates of the cost of incarceration often fall short of the cost to incarcerate someone with a severe mental illness like Baines.
"Incredible amounts of dollars are wasted by incarcerating people," he said.
Instead of incarceration, Honberg advocates that courts use diversionary programs, allowing people to get the treatment they need.
There is treatment available for people struggling with homelessness and mental illness in Hillsborough County, said Sandra Tabor, a spokeswoman for Mental Health Care Inc.
The organization has outreach programs to help people rejoin mainstream society. She said the essential part for people in Baines' situation is guidance.
Such guidance includes discharge planning for people being released from prison, which can help themenroll in the Hillsborough County Health Plan or Medicaid. This is cost-effective in the long run, said Lesa Weikel, a spokeswoman for the Homeless Coalition of Hillsborough County. But there's a long way to go to provide help for all.
"The reality is there are not enough services for people in her situation," she said.
It's a problem Allen sees in the system's treatment of many of his clients. He said he wasn't aware of any place that offers immediate help to the uninsured. Currently, he's helping another client - a man the court designated legally insane - try to navigate the Medicaid process.
"I think it's a huge problem that we as a society just don't deal with," he said. "All of the people end up getting in trouble with the law. I can tell you that it's the rare case where someone has threatened the president where there's not mental health issues involved."