Mental Health Measures Will Return, Advocates Say
Saying they ran out of time and into opposition from leery local governments, advocates on Wednesday said they will again push for legislation to divert the mentally ill from prisons, jails and high-security mental hospitals.
By diverting those with mental illnesses into community-based programs, the state can save millions while providing more comprehensive services to those who are now receiving expensive and inappropriate care.
“I believe, to some extent, we are in the Dark Ages in the way we treat people with mental illness,” said Rep. Will Snyder, R-Stuart, chairman of the House Criminal and Civil Justice Council and sponsor of last year’s legislation (HB 7103).
Nearly 600,000 Floridians suffer some form of severe mental illness including schizophrenia and bi-polar disorders.
The Department of Children and Families estimates it spends $250 million a year to fund 1,700 forensic hospital beds serving defendants with mental illnesses. The number is projected to more than double in the next decade.
Meanwhile, the Department of Corrections says the number of state prison beds serving inmates with mental illnesses is projected to more than double in the next decade from 17,000 to over 35,000, an increase of nearly 1,900 beds per year, at a cost of over $3.6 billion for new beds and services.
“The surge in mental health inmates is growing faster than we can handle,” said Col. William Janes, DCF deputy secretary for substance abuse and mental health issues.
Beyond the cost, Snyder said the real tragedy is that inmate patients are not getting the services they need. Most of the more severely affected will go back to jail or prison. Community-based efforts that include ancillary services like supportive housing and employment programs are far more successful in improving lives.
“It’s a human rights issue in my opinion,” Snyder said. “That trumps the financial impact though they both are very important.”
Measures last year failed in both chambers. Backers say they simply ran out of time.
But the group has received opposition from cash-strapped local governments leery that the cost of community-based care would fall on their shoulders. Backers including DCF Secretary George Sheldon say depopulating prisons and forensic hospitals would provide more than enough money to fund local efforts.
“We have to deal with the perception that this is an unfunded initiative,” Snyder said. “Those (community-based) facilities will cost money upfront. We have our work to do.”
Many residents in community-based programs, for example, could qualify for federal Medicaid benefits not available to them if incarcerated.
“We’re spending all these tax dollars on acute care,” said Judge Steven Leifman, who spearheaded a Florida Supreme Court task force on mental health issues. “We need to wrap our arms around the 9,000 people a year coming out of state prisons with serious mental illness and reintegrate them into the community.”