Bill dealing with the mentally ill in jail will have to wait another year

first_img Bill dealing with the mentally ill in jail will have to wait another year Senior EditorFiscal impact.Those two words apparently doomed legislation to overhaul Florida’s approach to treating the mentally ill who are caught up in the criminal justice system.The bills, HB 7103 and SB 2018, aimed to end the “warehousing” of people with mental health problems in jails and prisons by providing effective community-based treatment. The legislation would have reduced the need for forensic beds for those who are not competent to go to court, a cost to the state of $250 million annually for 1,700 beds.Those savings would pay for the new program, which in turn will reach more people and generate further savings to pay for the improved treatment, said proponents of the legislation. “They were so consumed with budget issues, they lost the ability to be far-sighted and what they ended up doing is compounding the problem from a financial point of view, from a public safety point of view, and from a treatment point of view,” said a frustrated Miami-Dade County Judge Steven Leifman. He is special advisor to the Florida Supreme Court on mental health issues and chair of the Mental Health Subcommittee of the Steering Committee on Family and Children in the Courts, which drew up the plan last year.In 2008, the plan passed the Florida House but died on the last day of the Regular Session in the Senate.This year looked promising, with then-House Speaker Ray Sansom, R-Ft. Walton Beach, and Rep. Julio Robaino, R-Miami, chair of the House Criminal and Civil Justice Policy Council, backing the plan, Leifman said. But then Sansom stepped down as speaker over a scandal about funding he obtained for a college in his district, and Robaino was replaced as the council chair in a policy dispute on another matter.Rep. William Snyder, R-Stuart, new chair of the policy council, undertook the push for the legislation, and it passed as a committee bill by a 12-0 vote in the council. But by the time it passed the council, the session was almost half over.It passed the House and with only a couple weeks left in the session, Leifman said the question was raised on whether money would have to be found to begin the program, regardless of the savings which would be made up later. The issue became whether the legislation would have a “fiscal impact.”In a session dominated by a crippling budget crisis, the “fiscal impact” was the death knell. Leifman and Snyder were unable to convince the questioners that the bill would save the state money in the long run and pay for itself. Once it stalled in the House, the companion legislation stopped moving in the Senate. Both measures died in committee as the session ended.“On the House side [someone] said it had a fiscal impact, which we contested. It would have used existing dollars and moved them around,” Leifman said.In fact, he said the economics of the matter demonstrate that the change is needed and will save the state money and provide more effective treatment for people with mental illnesses.He noted the $250 million the state currently spends on forensic beds is projected to double in the next few years. In fact, some expect that the state will not have enough forensic beds by the end of the 2009-10 fiscal year, Leifman said. The heart of the proposed program is taking money spent on the beds and instead to use those funds for effective community-based treatment, which both reaches more people and reduces the demand for the forensic beds.“If you look at the data, there are more people coming out of prison with mental illnesses than ever before, and if there’s no treatment, they’re going back into the system,” Leifman said. “It’s remarkably frustrating that it didn’t pass, not because of the time and effort we had invested but because of the effect it would have had.” Both Snyder and Leifman agreed the legislation will be back next year.“Its day has come,” Snyder said. “We’re going to get that law passed. I’ve already started working with the appropriations staff. We’ll have comfort language there. We may have to flesh it out a little more, maybe with a little more specificity: What are the details and how it will work?”Snyder said he didn’t disagree there might have been a fiscal impact needed to start the program, but contended it was well worth the expenditure because of the later savings and improved treatment. He noted that frequently a few years is necessary for a significant piece of legislation to be thoroughly vetted and to win legislative approval.“I’m going to carry the bill personally this next session,” Snyder said. “I think it will probably be my top priority to get this passed.“It’s going to be my job to convince the fiscal professionals that the savings will outweigh the initial expense.” June 1, 2009 Gary Blankenship Senior Editor Regular News Bill dealing with the mentally ill in jail will have to wait another yearlast_img

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