Florida’s system for preparing mentally ill defendants for criminal court is “the definition of insanity,” according to a former state Cabinet officer.
Each year, the state spends at least $50 million coaching those with mental health issues on how to appear in court so that they can be deemed competent to stand trial. The cost per patient averages $53,000, according to an investigation by the Sarasota Herald-Tribune and Tampa Bay Times.
For this investment, the result usually is a conviction, though most nonviolent offenders never spend a day in prison.
They do wind up spending weeks, sometimes months, in mental hospitals getting medicated and coached while living among violent offenders. What they don’t get is “therapy or long-term support to help them manage their illnesses,” Michael Braga, Anthony Cormier and Leonora LaPeter Anton wrote.
Defendants are shown videos resembling game shows where court concepts such as a bailiff and juries are discussed. There are mock trials where patients can see how a trial works and quizzes on the process. When they’re deemed able to understand the process, defendants are returned to jail. There, they often lose access to the medication that made them lucid enough to appear in court. That can cause them to begin the process over for subsequent court appearances.
Many of them end up spending more time locked up than their sentence would be. “It’s the definition of insanity,” George Sheldon, who oversaw Florida’s state-funded mental hospitals from 2008 to 2010 as secretary of the state Department of Children and Families, told the newspapers. “The majority of defendants are picked up for crimes that escalate from a misdemeanor. They get released, then they go off their meds and rotate right back into the system.”
One patient was still being held eight months after he was caught sleeping in the back of someone’s car and stealing 97 cents from the dashboard. Another was committed to a state hospital for months after shoplifting three shirts.
Although the state spends millions on attempting to make the mentally ill able to stand trial, it’s more parsimonious with other mental health spending. Florida is 49th in the country in funding for mental health and only five states have fewer psychiatric beds per capita.
-Noel Brinkerhoff, Steve Straehley
To Learn More:
Definition of Insanity (by Michael Braga, Anthony Cormier and Leonora LaPeter Anton, Tampa Bay Times)
ACLU Lawsuit Accuses the State of “Warehousing” Mentally Ill in Jails (by Ken Broder, AllGov California)
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