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For their own good
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Counties considering a new type of court
The goal is to keep the mentally ill and retarded out of jails.
By CHANDRA BROADWATER and COLLEEN JENKINS, Times Staff Writers
Published December 29, 2007
Bradley Fenters has been in jail since Oct. 26.
That night, the 19-year-old Hernando County resident stabbed his brother twice during one of his paranoid schizophrenic episodes. With no other safe place to go, he continues to await trial in the Hernando County Jail on charges of aggravated battery with a deadly weapon.
In Hillsborough County, Robert C. Burrell languished in jail for 432 days after his criminal charges were dropped. The mentally retarded and physically disabled man finally got placed in a mental health facility this summer after a judge intervened.
Cases like those, and a push from the state's Supreme Court chief justice, have persuaded several Tampa Bay area counties to consider adding mental health courts to their menu of diversion programs.
Citrus County is poised to implement its court Thursday, and Hillsborough officials plan a version to start some time in 2008. Hernando, too, has begun talks.
The Pinellas-Pasco Circuit has had its mentally ill jail diversion program in place since 2004. Started by Public Defender Bob Dillinger, it operates with federal, state and county funds.
The point of all this? To keep defendants with mental illnesses on medication and out of jails.
The state currently spends $250-million a year on 1,700 beds for inmates with mental illnesses, according to a report released last month. Sponsored by the Florida Supreme Court, the report envisions using that money instead on intensive community-based mental health treatment before people get arrested.
"We need to be getting in there and correcting what's going on in the judicial system," said Darlene Linville, president of the Hernando chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. "The police, the jail, the judicial system, they all take the blame. But they're not supposed to treat people with mental illnesses. We have to think about medication, treatment and support."
The issue is a priority for her organization statewide, Linville said.
"It's an issue we need to stop talking about and start doing about," she said. "Some good things are happening, but in the meantime we're sacrificing human dignity."
Putting together a mental health court requires figuring out which types of cases to divert and getting input from all the stakeholders - prosecutors, public defenders, court administration, judges and service providers.
Citrus' court is the result of a two-year planning effort. Circuit Judge Ric Howard, who hears felony cases, will identify defendants with nonviolent property cases who he thinks would better served by community-based treatment than by incarceration.
Court officials have applied for a federal grant to assess how broad the program could get.
But, right now, "we're doing this on a shoestring of a budget," Howard said.
The judge and his colleagues looked to Broward County, home of the nation's first mental health court, as a model. Several Hillsborough judges also made a field trip to check out Broward's operation.
Hillsborough Circuit Judge Debra Behnke will likely take on the county's mental health docket when it gets up and running. She expects to first target cases where attorneys question a defendant's competency to stand trial and eventually expand to other non-violent, mentally ill defendants.
Too many people working in the criminal justice system don't realize that a person who is deemed competent may still have mental health issues that need to be addressed, Behnke said.
Hillsborough spends $700,000 a year on competency, but only a third of those examined are declared incompetent. The defendants who complete competency training aren't necessarily better off, Behnke said.
"We assume that they're fixed and ignore all the mental health issues that we learned about and treat them like regular criminals," she said.
Hillsborough officials will meet early in the new year to formulate a plan. The Department of Children and Families has agreed to fund a case management position to assist the court.
While talks continue in Hernando, the jail has been busy trying to treat inmates with mental illnesses. Jail warden Don Stewart said that 48 beds in one wing have recently been devoted to inmates with mental illnesses who do not need solitary confinement.
With an average population of 730 at the jail, more staffers have been added to accommodate the growing number of inmates with mental illnesses, Stewart said. That includes a fifth full-time correctional officer and two doctors hired during the warden's two-year tenure. Those salaries and benefits, combined with the cost of medical doctors, nurses and medications, total about $500,000, he said.
"If we can elevate community awareness, then we can start finding solutions," Stewart said. "My interest is that people get the right care in the right setting."
Meanwhile, Bradley Fenters' mother, Michelle, wonders what she'll do when her son gets out of jail. She winces at the idea of having him taken into custody under the Baker Act, only to get treatment for a few days before he's released. So far, that's been her only reprieve.
"I don't want him released, I want him to get help," Fenters said, head in her hands. "Isn't there any one out there who cares?"