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Revived Bill Reforming Mental Health In Florida's Criminal Justice System Starts Moving

MGN Online

Florida lawmakers are slated to take up a measure Wednesday reforming mental health care within the state’s criminal justice system.

Rep. Charles McBurney (R-Jacksonville) is leading the charge on the effort. It stems from a workshop held by a panel he chairs within the House Judiciary Committee.

“And, one of the things we found in that workshop was that the persons with mental health issues, particularly serious mental health issues, were overwhelming the criminal justice system. So, as a result, we brought in stakeholders from the criminal justice system,” he stated.

After a wide spectrum of suggestions, McBurney and his committee drew up a proposal.

“So, this bill allows counties to create and fund treatment-based mental-health court programs, permits a defendant with mental illness who meets qualifying criteria to participate in pre-trial mental health court programs, allows judges to require offenders to particulate in post-adjudicatory treatment-based mental health programs, if certain eligibility requirements are met, creates a forensic hospital diversion pilot program,” he said.

McBurney says the bill also includes programs for veterans and juvenile offenders.

“[It] 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 added.

Mark Mahon, the chief judge of the 4th judicial circuit, says he applauds McBurney’s work on bill.

“The mental health people are overwhelming the court system, and it’s a solution whose time has come and again, we want to applaud that work, and it’s an important and effective tool that it’s not only in my view, the humane thing to do, but I think at the end of the day, it will be cost effective and it’ll get those people out of the high cost prison beds and jail facilities, and into the mental health treatment facilities where they need that help,” he said.

Barney Bishop with the Florida Smart Justice Alliance supported a similar bill last session, and he says he’ll do it again this year.

“Codifying the mental health courts is critical to address a growing issue of mental health that we’re facing in the state,” said Bishop. “The pre-trial intervention and the post-adjudicatory processes will create a much needed continuum of care, particularly for our veterans, and the forensic hospital diversion pilot program is an outstanding program that provides an opportunity for replication around the state, once the efficacy of it is proven. So, we support this very good bill.”

In mid-November, both the House and Senate bills passed their first committee stops.

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