Florida's Treatment of Mentally Ill Inmates Defies the Law
> 11/15/2006 9:06:01 AM

Circuit judges in Florida brought up the prospect of filing contempt charges against several state officials, including the secretary of the Florida Department of Children and Families, for failure to comply with orders to promptly transfer mentally ill inmates from prisons to hospital environments. This situation has been gaining steam, aided in large part by publicity over the deaths of two mentally ill inmates who fought with prison guards in Pensecola.

The New York Times reports today:

[Florida] state law requires that inmates found incompetent to stand trial be moved from county jails to psychiatric hospitals within 15 days of the state’s receiving the commitment orders. Florida has broken that law for years, provoking some public defenders to seek court orders forcing swift compliance...

Public defenders in Miami-Dade County describe psychotic clients who have hallucinated, mutilated themselves and attempted suicide while awaiting transfer to hospitals. The state says that shortages of beds and financing have made compliance impossible, and that court orders forcing the transfer of certain inmates are unfair to those who have waited longer.

This push for proper care of mentally ill inmates in Florida follows on the heels of a national Department of Justice report that found that a large proportion of prisoners in the U.S. suffer from mental health issues and that many states fail to provide adequate care for a host of reasons. The housing problem in Florida has moved from a simple numbers situation to outright criminal behavior however, because, as the Times notes, the Department of Children and Families has not increased its requests for state money even as the number of mentally ill inmates has risen and the state has run a tremendous budget surplus.

Judges are upset because from all appearances, Florida is one state where the mentally ill could be receiving the proper treatment. While the deaths in Pensacola have precipitated the building of new padded cells, the problem is much larger than one prison and shouldn't require inmates' deaths to spur change. We can only hope that these judges continue to talk tough to officials in Florida, and that the punishments handed down will fit their crimes. These public officials who ignore the needs of the mentally ill are not just disrupting the criminal justice system, they are breaking the law, and need to be held accountable. The money is there for change to be made, and as a community, Florida needs to make it clear that that is what they want.

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