At last, help for ill
Published January 13, 2007

What does it take to provide timely treatment to Florida’s mentally ill inmate population? Maybe it takes an angry judge who makes news by threatening a public official with jail? Or maybe it takes a new agency
leader who has both compassion and a backbone? Or maybe it just takes the right kind of governor?
But whatever the combination of personalities and forces, it appears that the hundreds of mentally ill inmates languishing in jail soon will be properly cared for, both in the short term and into the future.

At a special meeting of the Legislative Budget Commission on Wednesday, nearly $17-million was directed toward expanding the number of beds available for mentally ill people who land in Florida’s jails. This money
will serve as a stopgap, adding 373 more treatment beds and eliminating the backlog statewide.

But demonstrating that this appropriation will be more than just a patch, new DCF Secretary Bob Butterworth has made it clear that he intends to ask for an additional $48.5-million for the next fiscal year to maintain that
expanded number of beds. The request has the backing of Gov. Charlie Crist.

The approach of Butterworth and Crist could not be more different than that of the former administration. Under the leadership of Gov. Jeb Bush and his various DCF agency chiefs, the plight of mentally ill jail inmates was one of those expensive state problems that was overlooked while other priorities, such as the elimination of the intangibles tax paid by Florida’s wealthiest residents, took precedence.

Since 2002, there has been a growing shortage in the number of treatment beds needed to serve incompetent inmates so they could be transferred out of jail within 15 days, as the law requires. The result has been an increasing burden on local jails, and inmates who sometimes hurt themselves while waiting for treatment, such as one Pinellas inmate who gouged an eye out.

Yet Bush had routinely advised DCF to scale back its budget requests. Since 2002, DCF’s initial requests included nearly $100-million to address the mentally ill inmate backlogs. But only $12-million of that finally made it into the agency’s official budget requests. DCF said that the rest of the money was withdrawn upon advice from the governor’s office.

It took a threat by then-Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Crockett Farnell that he would jail then-DCF Secretary Lucy Hadi to wake up the Bush administration. Bush angrily denounced Farnell, but all the judge was doing
was upholding state law.

Crist and Butterworth are bringing more sound and responsive leadership to a fundamental responsibility of state government. All it took was acknowledging the problem and spending the money to address it.

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