Advocates Happy Bill Reforming Mental Health In Florida's Criminal Justice System Signed

Mar 28, 2016

Miami Dade County Judge Steve Leifman also chairs Florida Supreme Court’s Taskforce on substance abuse and mental health issues.
Credit jud11.flcourts.org

Now that the Governor’s signed it, a bill reforming mental health within Florida’s criminal justice system will become law in a few months. Some advocates say it’s been years in the making.

Mental Health In Criminal Justice System

As the head of the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. Charles McBurney (R-Jacksonville) says this issue is important to him because of research he’d done and troubling statistics he’d heard.

“In Florida, for example, there are something like 19 times more persons with mental illness in our prisons and jails than our state hospitals combined,” he said. “Some of the statistics that we saw concerning persons that were in our criminal justice system who suffered from mental health were staggering and have threatened and actually are overwhelming our criminal justice system.”

So, McBurney says it took a lot of input from various stakeholders in multiple workshops.

“We had representatives from the State Attorney’s office, the Public Defender’s Office, the Sheriff’s office, specialty court judges, judges, Corrections, juvenile, all across the board to try to provide ideas and from that, we put together a bill,” he added

Miami Dade County Judge Steve Leifman is among those who have been working on this issue for years. He chairs the Florida Supreme Court’s Taskforce on substance abuse and mental health issues.

“It’s an excellent bill,” said Leifman. “Our task force has been working with the Legislature for almost nine years, and so we’re extremely pleased and thrilled that the legislation not only passed, but was signed. The significant piece of legislation that will have a huge impact.”

Leifman says it contains five important parts, including a provision meant to address a major gap that’s existed since 1999. He says it can help a low level offender, for example, who is incompetent to stand trial.

“There’s been very little ways to get that person treated,” he added. “And, so what’s happened in the past is the courts have been forced to basically release people who were sometimes quite psychotic right back to the street without any kind of treatment. The bill addresses that problem by giving county court judges the authority to use something called assisted outpatient treatment to require someone to get treated who is refusing to be treated in the community.”

Other parts of the bill include help for veterans and juveniles as well as building on a pilot program in Miami Dade aimed at helping those who need the help and saves money.

Leifman says the bill also creates authorization for mental health courts.

“This way courts around Florida now have the authority to set up these treatment courts so that we can help divert people, who otherwise would come back into the criminal justice system,” he continued. “So, it’s a very, very good bill, and I think it goes a long way towards improving both our community mental health system and our criminal justice system.”

The new law takes effect July 1st.

Funding For Mental Health and Substance Abuse

Leifman says he's also happy about the money put into the budget, adding the funding is crucial. Today, Florida is ranked as one of the lowest states in the country for mental health funding.

“The Legislature allocated up to $65 million for mental health and substance abuse, which is the first new dollars we’ve seen in a decade,” he concluded. “And, so there have been massive cuts over the last eight years, and so, this is a good start in the right direction to put more dollars back into the system because without the dollars.”

Leifman says without the dollars, stakeholders can’t provide the services even with the best legislation in place.

For more news updates, follow Sascha Cordner on Twitter: @SaschaCordner.