Jailing the mentally ill: Attorney General Moody looks for solutions

By: - July 3, 2019 7:00 am

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Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody tells a story about the intersection of mental illness and law enforcement. It involves someone experiencing a mental breakdown in the middle of a busy street, “clearly causing chaos,” she says.

“Traffic was tied up. The officer can’t leave them there. If they have no other choice but to arrest them and put them in a jail, and there is no other option, or they don’t have the training in what to do, [jail] is ultimately what is going to happen,” Moody says.

It’s commonplace that mentally ill people get thrown in jail instead of getting the treatment they need – a problem that needs solutions, according to Moody, who’s launched discussions across Florida on the issue that many people may not know about:

Florida’s prisons house 18,000 people with mental problems requiring treatment, and in February reached a legal settlement requiring them to boost mental health services.

Moody, a former prosecutor and judge, describes facing defendants who “needed a mental health doctor more than a judge.” She says: “It was disheartening to see some of these repeat offenders deteriorate, knowing that they were not receiving the medical care they needed.”

Police agencies in Florida are tackling the problem, providing training and establishing crisis intervention teams capable of coping with mental health outbursts more effectively than merely tossing troubled people behind bars.

But it’s not easy.

Law officers are “interfacing with people – some dangerous, some not – who face very serious mental health challenges,” Moody says. “We ask law enforcement … to make very critical, time-sensitive decisions on what to do in these very unique situations. And sometimes we ask them to do that with very little training or very little background in dealing with mental health.”

Moody’s discussion of these efforts came during a roundtable discussion in West Palm Beach – one in a series she is hosting about mental illness and law enforcement.

The first, on May 15, addressed mental health problems within law enforcement (nationally, 165 active or retired cops killed themselves last year). The second, the June 26 West Palm gathering, tackled pre-arrest intervention.

Subsequent sessions will center on post-arrest treatment and what the courts are doing. Participants have included law officers, counselors, and state and local elected officials.

Agencies that have established mental health units have experienced dramatic reductions in the cost of running jails and in recidivism. “If we are successfully addressing these mental illnesses, and those that are suffering from them, in a productive and proactive way, we can reduce crime,” Moody says. “This is a nonpartisan issue – one that we in law enforcement can all rally around.”

In Palm Beach County, Sheriff Ric Bradshaw’s behavioral services unit comprises six investigators and nine therapists who identify at-risk people suffering mental illness and help them manage their treatment. Judges call upon these specialists to evaluate defendants exhibiting symptoms of mental illness. A similar program in Pinellas County includes a mobile crisis response team.

Underscoring the need to train officers, Pasco County faces a considerable deficit in mental health resources, mustering only 1,460 mental health professionals – including psychiatrists, psychologists, clinical social workers, and substance abuse counselors – per resident, against a statewide average of 700, according to Sheriff’s Lt. Toni Roche.

Every new Sheriff’s Office hire – from street cops to corrections officers – receives training in recognizing mental health symptoms and de-escalation techniques.

Beginning on Oct. 1 the office will deploy a new mental health and threat assessment team comprising six deputies and a clinical social worker. Officials keep close track of mental illness-related incidents and measure results. “Our data is going to drive our efforts in our community,” Roche says.

Moody emphasizes the importance of empirical evidence. “Data drives all or our decisions – not what we think will work, not what we feel like would be the best. Data – looking at cost, looking at what is working in terms of successes, recidivism numbers. Data should drive every decision we make.”

And the data point to the type of crimes that tend to arise from mental illness, she says – affray, public urination, disorderly conduct, and trespassing, for example.

“Agencies that have adopted these tactics have experienced “dramatic reductions in their costs of running jails,” Moody says. Pinellas County, for example, spends $126 per day per inmate in its jail versus $13 in a “safe harbor” facility for the mentally ill, she says.

Moody’s efforts on the issue come as various state officials battle what some consider a mental health crisis in Florida, including an epidemic of suicides, among veterans and service members.

First Lady Casey DeSantis, in particular, has been traveling across Florida hosting listening sessions on mental health and substance abuse. The sessions follow the launch of Hope for Healing Florida, a new multi-agency mental health and substance abuse campaign, according to the governor’s office.

The effort will combine resources of state agencies and the private sector to serve the needs of Floridians struggling with mental health and substance abuse. The website is HopeforHealingFL.com.

Gov. Ron DeSantis and the First Lady earlier this year held a discussion at the Governor’s Mansion, after two students who survived the 2018 shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School died of apparent suicide.

The state agency heads and lawmakers discussed numerous initiatives, and Gov. DeSantis called for unity across state agencies in tackling mental health problems, where solutions have been elusive.

The problem isn’t going away, the governor said at the time. “We’ve got to do what we can do to deal with the problem…it affects families, it affects communities. Ultimately it affects our success as a state.”



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Michael Moline
Michael Moline

Michael Moline has covered politics and the legal system for more than 30 years. He is a former managing editor of the San Francisco Daily Journal and former assistant managing editor of The National Law Journal. He began his career covering the Florida Capitol for United Press International. More recently, he wrote for Florida Politics.