Bill Reforming Mental Health In Florida's Criminal Justice System Heads To House Floor

Feb 16, 2016

Credit MGN Online

A bill reforming mental health within Florida’s criminal justice system is continuing to move in the House and Senate.

There’s a general consensus among the House and Senate as well as mental health stakeholders that people with mental illnesses risk overwhelming Florida’s criminal justice system.

So, Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla (R-Miami) and Rep. Charles McBurney (R-Jacksonville) are working together on bills to establish a framework for mental health courts to more efficiently address these cases. Both Republicans are doing this as chairs of their respective Judiciary Committees.

“The bill authorizes the Department of Children and Families to create a pilot program to treat offenders who have been found incompetent to proceed to trial or found not guilty by reason of insanity,” said Diaz de la Portilla. “As a community-based forensic commitment program, the program offers an alternative to traditional incarceration for persons who do not have a significant history of violence. The program will be modeled after the Miami-Dade Forensic Alternative Center.”

McBurney, the bill’s House sponsor, says it also includes help for veterans and juvenile offenders.

“So, this bill expands the definition of veterans for the participation of Veterans Court to include those discharged or released under a general discharge, allows judges to require qualifying veterans to participate in treatment programs as part of their probation or community control, and allows a juvenile offender with a mental illness to be admitted to a delinquency pre-trial program for treatment purposes and allows a judge to dismiss charges against a juvenile upon the juvenile’s successful completion of the program,” he said.

Laura Youmans with the Florida Association of Counties supports the measure.

“This is one of the Association of Counties priority bills this session,” she said. “We do fund the problem solving courts and we also solve a lot of the mental health services. So, we do appreciate this support from the state.”

Barney Bishop with the Florida Smart Justice Alliance is a big supporter as well.

“Smart Justice supported this excellent bill last year,” said Bishop. “We support this bill this year. It’s really a no brainer bill and it’s kind of amazing that some of the things in this bill have not already been done by 2015, but it’s always a good time to get it done. But, it’s always a good time to get it done. So, we fully support this bill.”

Rep. Gwyndolen Clarke-Reed (D-Deerfield Beach) has similar thoughts, adding she remembers last year supporting a similar effort by McBurney.

“And, Chair McBurney, I wanted again this year to say this bill is really going to really change the lives of many folks and families too whose loved ones have been languishing in these prisons where they really don’t need to be,” she said. “So, I’m looking forward to the implementation of the new pilot program as well as see this move further along.”

And, as for Rep. Victor Torres D-Orlando), he says the measure holds a special place.

“As a veteran, I really salute you and I really appreciate you brining this bill forward and many veterans returning home are subject to mental illnesses and anything that can help our veterans, I’m all for it,” he said.

The House measure is now headed to the floor, after passing its last committee last week. Meanwhile, the Senate measure has only had one hearing so far, but is slated for its second committee hearing Wednesday.

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