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Lawmakers Look To Divert Mentally Ill From Criminal Justice System

A House panel on Wednesday unanimously approved a bill aimed at keeping Floridians with mental illnesses out of the criminal-justice system.

The House Children, Families & Seniors Subcommittee supported the measure (HB 439), filed by Rep. Charles McBurney, R-Jacksonville, that would create a statewide framework for counties to offer treatment-based mental health courts.

Many counties have mental-health courts, but they have varying eligibility and program requirements.

The bill would also establish a pilot program in Duval, Broward and Miami-Dade counties to serve offenders who have mental illnesses and are at risk of being sent to state forensic hospitals or placed behind bars.

And it would widen the pool of veterans and service members who are eligible for veterans' courts by including those with general discharges.

"It's a no-brainer," Barney Bishop of the Florida Smart Justice Alliance told the committee.

McBurney proposed a similar measure in the 2015 session. It passed the House 113-1, but died in the Senate Appropriations Committee after the House adjourned the session early.

"People with serious mental-health problems are causing great problems with our criminal justice system," McBurney said Wednesday. "And it's severely breaking down our criminal justice system."

A legislative bill analysis said as many as 125,000 adults with mental illnesses or substance-use disorders "that require immediate treatment" are arrested and booked into Florida jails each year. Between 2002 and 2010, the number of Florida inmates with mental illnesses or substance-use disorders increased from 8,000 to 17,000. By 2020, the number is expected to reach 35,000.

And of the 150,000 juveniles referred to the state Department of Juvenile Justice each year, more than 70 percent have at least one mental health disorder.

"It's not appropriate that our jails or prisons be our number-one mental health facility," McBurney said after the vote.

Mark Fontaine, executive director of the Florida Alcohol and Drug Abuse Association, said the use of specialized courts such as those in McBurney's bill has already proved successful.

"For years, the drug courts have been a very successful option," he said. "And advancing the mental-health courts and the veterans courts is only a win for the state, it's a win for the communities and it's a win for the people that are struggling with their mental-health condition."

The bill faces two more committees, as does its Senate companion (SB 604), filed by Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami. McBurney and Diaz de la Portilla chair their chambers' judiciary committees.

House Children, Families & Seniors Chairwoman Gayle Harrell, R-Stuart, pointed to the bill's estimated cost — $4.5 million — and suggested that diverting people from jails would save the counties some money.

"Is there any of thought of having, perhaps, the counties, since they're going to be saving some money, participating in the cost of the treatment?" she asked.

The bill "probably will have some impact on county jails," McBurney agreed. "However, when running this by the (Florida) Supreme Court (mental health) task force … they felt that it (asking counties to share the costs) would greatly hamper in trying to build these programs. And so I'm deferring to their expertise, at least for the time being. But I'm certainly open to it."

Chief Judge Mark Mahon of the 4th Judicial Circuit, a former lawmaker, said the measure would be "fiscally responsible" for both the state and the counties in the long run.

"But it's also the humane and right thing to do, to get these people who have serious mental health issues out of the worst place in the world for treatment," Mahon said.

Copyright 2020 WJCT News 89.9. To see more, visit .