A crime of neglect

Sometimes it’s a crime to be mentally ill in Florida.

The law says that defendants deemed mentally incompetent to stand trial must be placed in a treatment facility within 15 days. But there are not enough treatment beds, so mentally incompetent prisoners sometimes languish in jail for months.

It is difficult to describe this violation of the law as anything but willful. After a judge recently found Department of Children and Families Secretary Lucy Hadi in contempt of court and fined her $80,000 for ignoring the law, Hadi resigned. And, in truth, it wasn’t really her fault.

Every year for the last five years, DCF has requested additional funding for new treatment beds. And every year, Gov. Jeb Bush’s office reduced the amount of requested funding, in one year by 95 percent. "The reality is, you have to prioritize," Bush spokesperson Alia Faraj, told the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel.

Translation: Obeying the law and keeping mentally ill prisoners out of jail simply wasn’t a priority for a governor who liked to call himself a "compassionate conservative." Only now, with his administrators being held in contempt and Bush on his way out of office and seeking to shore up his "legacy," the governor has asked for an "emergency" appropriation of $16.6 million to help provide more treatment beds.

That’s a start. "However, unless we address the inadequacies of the existing mental health system we will continue to face a similar crisis every year," warns Miami-Dade Judge Steve Leifman, chair-elect of Florida’s Partners in Crisis, an advocacy group for the mentally ill. "Using the criminal justice system to provide mental health treatment is a waste of taxpayer dollars and an inhumane way to treat people with illnesses. Florida needs to develop effective treatment programs to keep people with mental illnesses and substance abuse disorders from entering the criminal justice system."

Perhaps incoming Gov. Charlie Crist will deem it more important to obey the law. Unfortunately, that simply wasn’t a priority for his compassionate predecessor.

Bruce R. Stevens, Ph.D.
College of Medicine
Department of Physiology & Functional Genomics
University of Florida
1600 SW Archer Road, Room M552
P.O. Box 100274
Gainesville, FL USA 32610-0274
Office phone (352)-392-4480
Laboratory phone (352)-392-8095
Fax (352)-846-0270
e-mail: [email protected]