Judges seek expanded mental health services in justice system

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (Capitol News Service) - Florida ranks 43rd in the nation for access to mental health care. It also spends nearly $2.2 million a day to house an estimated 35,000 inmates who suffer from mental health issues.

Florida lawmakers discuss mental health at a roundtable. (Capitol News Service)

Nearly 2.8 million Floridians struggle with mental health problems. Sixty-one percent receive no treatment.

In any given year, more than 130,000 will be arrested and booked into Florida jails.

“We are in this world,” said Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody.

Addressing the growing intersection of mental health and corrections was the top of a roundtable discussion led by Attorney General Ashley Moody and judges from Miami-Dade and Sarasota Friday.

The two counties have seen major reductions in recidivism and homelessness with their innovative mental health programs.

Since implementing their mental health programs, Sarasota saw a 50 percent reduction in homelessness. In Miami-Dade, 11th Circuit Judge Steve Leifman saw the homeless population drop from 8,000 to only 1,000.

“Treatment works and we really have two choices in this state: we can continue to release people from the criminal justice system without treatment or we can release them with treatment,” said Leifman.

Less than half of Florida’s 67 counties have mental health courts. Currently, there are only 27 in the state.

Mental health courts can help divert those suffering toward treatment, instead of prison.

“Recovery rates for people with mental illnesses are actually much better than for people with heart disease and diabetes,” said Leifman.

Moody said another key issue is deciding when to bring someone into the criminal justice system in the first place.

“Are those that are urinating in public, do those need to be arrested... or is it better to get them stabilized within the community?” said Moody.

The ideas discussed in the meeting will not only help other judges implement their own mental health programs, but also help lawmakers craft policy to improve mental health care and funding in the state.