Florida Takes Huge Step Toward Healthy Treatment of Mentally Ill
> 11/15/2007 12:59:31 PM

As reported in today's Miami Herald, the state of Florida is taking bold steps to improve the treatment of mentally ill individuals who come into contact with the criminal justice system. Speaking to the Herald, Miami-Dade County Judge Steven Leifman, chairman of the Supreme Court's Mental Health Subcommittee, explained:

''What we're doing is focusing on this very small group of people who are costing the state a ton of money and are recycling through the criminal justice system. About 80 percent of those people can live comfortably and safely in the community. About 125,000 people with serious mental illness are arrested every year in need of immediate treatment [in Florida],'' he said. "About half of them are killing the system. The idea is to wrap our arms around them, using federal money.''

Toward the end of answering for this problem, the Florida state government has presented a comprehensive plan, supported by both Gov. Crist and the Supreme Court, to address the many facets of the problem. Their strategic plan, entitled "Transforming Florida's Mental Health System", includes 14 key elements outlined in the Executive Summary. Some of the most important of these points include:
  • Adoption of innovative financing strategies, designed around principles of managed care, that create incentives to prevent individuals from inappropriately entering the justice systems, and to quickly respond to individuals who do become involved in the justice system.
  • Establishment of a multi-tiered level of care classification system targeting individuals at highest risk of institutional involvement in the criminal justice, juvenile justice, and state mental health systems to ensure adequate services in times of acute need when at risk of penetration into institutional levels of care and maximizing limited state resources during periods of relatively stable recovery.
  • Implementation of strategies targeting community readiness and individuals at highest risk for institutional involvement.
  • Programs to maximize access to federal entitlement benefits by expediting the application process and increasing initial approval rates for individuals prescreened to be eligible for benefits.
  • Strategic reinvestment of general revenue appropriations currently allocated to the state forensic system into community-based services targeting individuals at risk of criminal justice system involvement.
This new system, if implemented accurately and fully, would serve as a powerful statement of understanding of the problem and commitment to its solution on the part of virtually every member of the government and criminal justice system. As the Miami Herald described in another article today, the current situation is dire. Discussing one prisoner's experience, the Herald drew the following image:

He was locked up in a wing where psychotic inmates sleep on the tile floor or rusted metal bed frames, without sheets, blankets or mattresses. They stay in their cells for 24 hours a day. No books, no TV, no visitors, no toothbrush, no eating utensils, no clothes.

In Florida it seems as if the idea that treatment as opposed to punishment for the mentally ill will lead to a healthier society as well as a healthier bottom line has finally reached a tipping point. Those involved have displayed commitment above and beyond by rolling out their new plan, which will require significant financial commitments at a time when the state's economy is not at its most stable point. Aside from being a humane and progressive step, this new plan will also prove to be a fiscally responsible decision, saving a considerable amount of money by preventing unfortunate encounters between law enforcement officers and mentally ill patients who desperately need to be treated, not detained or incarcerated.

Florida will spend six years putting the "Transforming Florida's Mental Health System" plan into place. While it may take twice as long for us to be able to gauge all the program's outcomes, many changes should be felt almost immediately. Perhaps most important among these is the official shift in position by the state's government with regard to the mentally ill. Men and women who are sick will no longer be viewed as unmanageable problem cases to be locked away, but instead they will be seen as humans in need of help. On the community level, this change may not be felt that strongly, but in the lives of the men and women who were previously subjected to awful conditions, this change could mark a new beginning in their lives.

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