State Attorney General Ashley Moody is looking to local law enforcement agencies for guidance on improving mental health treatment for the state’s incarcerated people.
“We’re hoping to use the ideas that we’ve found from sheriffs around the state, put numbers to those ideas and programs, make sure that they are best practices in reducing recidivism and costs to sheriffs and police around the state, and then disseminate that information and encourage the legislature to support it,” Moody said.
At a roundtable discussion at the Bay County Sheriff’s Office on Wednesday, a group of local law enforcement officials from across the state shared their efforts to reduce recidivism among people who have mental illnesses. This was the third meeting on mental health and the criminal justice system as part of a four-part series organized by Moody’s office.
About 125,000 people who are incarcerated in the state each year have a mental health issue, the Florida Supreme Court estimates. That’s about 17 percent of the people who were arrested in the state last year. While most commit nonviolent, minor offenses - such as trespassing or public urination — many return to jail, Moody said.
“If you can keep them stabilized while in the community and begin that stabilization process while they’re in jail, not only can you reduce crime (meaning reducing those arrests for serious nonviolent infractions for which we’re seeing people wind up in jail) but you can save money for taxpayers.”
Some of the ideas proposed at the meeting include training detention officers to spot and respond to mental health crises, employing counselors and psychiatrists in jails and ensuring inmates with mental illnesses continue receiving services after they’re released.
“The common theme is community partnership,” said Bay County Sheriff Tommy Ford, whose office employs three counselors and a psychiatrist at the county jail.
Ford says Hurricane Michael has exacerbated the community’s mental health challenges. “We’ve responded to about 656 mental illness related calls since the storm.” Of those, 249 were suicide-related, he said. Since this time last year, suicides have increased in the county by 75 % - from 8 to 14 deaths, he said.
About 60 % of his deputies are trained in responding to mental health crises, Ford said. He’d like to see more state funding for that program, which would allow his office to train more detention officers and newly recruited deputies, he said.
“I think Attorney General Moody is doing a fantastic job by bringing people together, us talking about best practices and initiating those, and I know that she’ll be supportive of funding for some of those programs as they more fully develop,” he said. “The meeting today was attended by some of our local legislative delegation, as well. It’s good for them to hear what challenges we face.”