Pictured: A child deemed mentally incompetent outdoors at an asylum
We salute and repost the Palm Beach Post Editorial of Tuesday, March 31, 2009
It made sense a year ago, with the economy teetering, for Florida to start treating mental illness as a disease, not a crime. It makes even more sense now, with the economy staggering, to make a change that would protect the public and save money.
The issue goes back four decades, when asylums for the mentally ill were closed but no new treatment centers were opened to replace them. In Florida, the issue came to a head in late 2006, when a Pinellas County judge threatened to jail the secretary of the Department of Children and Families for not providing treatment for mentally ill inmates in the county jail. DCF finally found $5 million, but the underlying problem remained.
Prompted by the crisis, the Florida Supreme Court created a task force. DCF's attitude became more enlightened under Gov. Crist than it was under Jeb Bush. Former DCF Secretary Bob Butterworth - also an ex-sheriff in Broward County - campaigned in 2008 for legislation that would allow the state to shift the focus from giving mentally ill inmates just enough treatment so they can be declared competent for trial to a system of community-based alternative treatment. The House agreed, but the proposal died in the Senate.
The legislation is back, and Rep. William Snyder, R-Stuart, the House sponsor, said, "I have a good feeling." The proposal is "flying in the House." The Senate version has had one favorable committee vote and is up for another on Wednesday. Rep. Snyder, a retired law enforcement officer, calls it "extraordinarily good public policy," and he's not exaggerating.
Miami-Dade County Circuit Judge Steve Leifman points out that "the fastest-growing sector of the (state) prison population is the mentally ill." The state, he said, will need $500 million over the next 10 years just to build prisons for that population. The state spends another half-billion a year on two psychiatric hospitals that are relics of the 1970s. Fifty percent of all females in the state prison system are mentally ill, in most cases because of sexual abuse as children.
This legislation is aimed strictly at those diagnosed as having a mental illness, and thus who commit crimes literally because they are sick. It doesn't apply to violent gangbangers. It seeks to get treatment before the cycle of lesser crimes, release and homelessness leads to a major crime. Also, being progressive costs less. Miami-Dade, Judge Leifman said, closed down a wing of its jail that had been stocked with such offenders.
Another supporter of this legislation is Krista Marx, the Palm Beach County judge who in 2007 sentenced Duane Vanduyl to 40 years in prison. On July 4, 2006, the mentally ill man kidnapped three people, held them in his van at gunpoint and forced two women to perform sex acts on him.
In passing sentence, Judge Marx criticized the system's failure to get Vanduyl the treatment that might have prevented the crime. "The system missed him," Judge Marx said. "We have to move 50 years right now, and build a new system over the next six to 10 years."
By becoming the first state to shift from incarceration to treatment, Florida would pass "the most far-reaching legislation since the Baker Act," said Bill Janes, DCF assistant secretary for substance abuse. The approach would be cheaper and better, and Florida would be solving a problem, not letting it fester.