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Lawmakers Mull Over Mental Health-Criminal Justice Link, Includes More Officer Training

MGN Online

A group of Florida lawmakers is looking into the mental health issues of inmates in the state’s criminal justice system, and some legislation could be in store based on ideas from different law agencies and the courts.

For Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, he says it’s important all law enforcement agencies get some type of training to account for people with mental health issues called Crisis Intervention Team, or CIT training.

“You see, we’ve got 27 Sheriffs offices that aren’t doing CIT at all; I think we need 100 percent,” said Gualtieri.

He says in the Spring of last year, there was a situation that may have been avoided if the deputies had had the proper training.

“Because we had a deputy who had responded to mental health call,” said Gualtieri, speaking to the House Judiciary Committee Wednesday. “And, as he was taking her into custody under the Baker Act, she lashed out at him. She fought and kicked him. This deputy was not CIT trained. There were no CIT trained deputies on scene, and no supervisors on scene that recognized what this really was a woman who had serious mental, behavioral health issues, who didn’t need to go to the jail, didn’t belong in the criminal justice system, but she created the ultimate crime of battery on a law enforcement officer and if you do that, by God, you go to jail.”

But, when the woman was jailed, Gualtieri says a series of unfortunate events occurred that led to her dying in the jail, and he had to pay her husband $1.2 million.

Still, he says there are areas where there are situations that have gone right because deputies have had the proper training, and he wants to see that type of training done across the state. Gualtieri says that’s part of a bill authored by Republican Representative Kathleen Peters (R-South Pasadena).

“And it would be a pilot program for $800,000 funded over three years and housed at the Florida Sheriffs Association that would have a goal of 100 percent participation for all of the 67 sheriffs in the state of Florida and also for the hundreds of police departments who don’t participate in CIT Training to expand it to them as well. There are three main components to the traditional CIT Training: law enforcement, mental and behavioral health professionals, and also consumers and advocates,” Gualtieri added.

And, Miami-Dade County Circuit Judge Steve Leifman says how to deal with people with mental issues in the court is also an issue. He’s also the chairman of the Florida Supreme Court Task Force on Substance Abuse and Mental Health Issues in the Court.

And, speaking to a House Judiciary Committee members Wednesday, he says he’s doing a lot of work around the country to educate people about mental health issues and the criminal justice system.

“And, in Seattle, they took a group of people like you to a public park and they took their shoes, their purses, their wallets, and they’re IDs. And it says, ‘you have mental illness. Tomorrow morning at 9, you need to be in court. At 10:30 a.m., you need to go see your probation officer. At noon, you need to go see your psychiatrist, and 2:00 p.m., you need to go and pick up your medication. Good luck,’” said Leifman.

And, he says that scenario is very close to real life.

“And, if you think about it, what we did was created a system for people who aren’t sick. This is not a 9 to 5 disease,” he added. “You know, if we treated with primary health issues the way we treated people with mental illnesses in this country, there would be lawsuits and criminal indictments. It still stuns me that it’s okay to discharge people with serious mental illness into homelessness, and that’s basically what we do.”

And, Leifman says there are definitely things that are working in his community, like CIT training for thousands of officers.

“And, we created this incredible system of care that focuses on both pre-arrest and post-arrest diversion,” he stated. “We now, in Miami-Dade, have over 4,400 law enforcement officers trained in Crisis Intervention Team policing. In 2013, my two big agencies—I have 36—the city of Miami and Miami-Dade handled 10,626 mental health calls, but significantly, they only made 9 arrests out of that many calls.”

Leifman says in doing that, they’ve already closed one of the Miami jails, significantly reduced police injuries, and decreased the number of shootings of people with mental illnesses.

Meanwhile, the discussion into mental health and substance abuse issues is expected to continue during the first week of the Florida Legislative session.

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

Sascha Cordner has more than ten years of public radio experience. It includes working at NPR member station WUFT-FM in Gainesville for several years. She's worked in both radio and TV, serving in various capacities as a reporter, producer and anchor. She's also a graduate of the University of Florida with a bachelor's degree in telecommunications. She is the recipient of 15 awards from the Associated Press, Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), and Edward R. Murrow. Her award-winning stories include her coverage on the infamous “Dozier School for Boys” and a feature titled "Male Breast Cancer: Lost in the Sea of Pink." Currently, Sascha serves as the host and producer of local and state news content for the afternoon news program "All Things Considered" at WFSU. Sascha primarily covers criminal justice and social services issues. When she's not reporting, Sascha likes catching up on her favorite TV shows, singing and reading. Follow Sascha Cordner on Twitter:@SaschaCordner.