New Mental Health Court Coming to Pinellas-Pasco Circuit
There will be a new mental health court in the Sixth Judicial circuit that is expected to be running by fall 2022. It’s intended to address criminal offenders who otherwise would be lost in the system. It is designed to provide treatment to prevent further criminal activity fueled by mental health problems.
Unfortunately, people with mental health issues are often repeat offenders charged with low-level crimes. As a result, law enforcement has virtually no option but to arrest such individuals. This ends up being a problem for the courts.
Opening a mental health court aims to help cut down on repeat offenders. One way of achieving this will be offering them up to one year of free mental health treatment. However, there are stipulations on who is eligible for the program. Only defendants charged with a third-degree felony or less with a non-violent offense can qualify for the program.
Mental health courts will also open the door for PTI or Pretrial Services. In a PTI situation, the defendant would complete PTI services, and the charges would be dropped. In addition, defendants not eligible for PTI but eligible for probation could complete a probationary period in exchange for dropped charges.
Judge Ronald Ficarrotta established the first Juvenile Mental Health Court in Florida in 2019. Chief Judge Ficarrotta was recently appointed Chief Judge to the Commission on Mental Health and Substance Abuse by Governor Ron DeSantis. Judge Ficarrotta commented, “Florida’s jails and prisons are not equipped or designed to deal with serious mental illness.” As a result, he’s opted to use an evidence-based problem-solving court model to address the issue.
Pinellas County is now establishing its mental health court system based on Hillsborough County’s implementation. As Hillsborough County’s system has proven effective and successful, Pinellas County is using them as a reference, with modifications. In addition, Pinellas County was awarded a $555,000 grant from the Justice Department to help create the new court. The grant will pay for 40 defendants to receive treatment every year.
Mental health treatment is an expensive service that many defendants cannot afford. The new court will aim to support individuals with consistent medical and therapeutic treatment.
The Court administration is supposed to keep a close watch on data generated by the new court. Additionally, Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bruce Bartlett has expressed the importance of the primary screening process. “Applicant screening will be the most important part of the whole process”; Bartlett also said it’s essential to have one individual decide who is let into the court. That way, the admission and screening process will remain consistent.
Starting in October 2022, Judge Philip Federico will be the judge presiding over cases in the new mental health court.
Inadequate Access to Mental Health Care in Florida
Lack of access to care is a pervasive issue for many Floridians with mental illness. Here are some statistics on the prevalence of mental illness in Florida:
- More than half a million adults in Florida struggle with mental illness.
- Almost one-fifth of all Floridians over 18 have a mental illness
- Over 7% of adults in Florida have a substance abuse disorder.
- Nearly 60% of adults in Florida with mental illness do not get treatment.
Despite the high rate of mental illness in Florida, there are significant obstacles to accessing necessary health care. The main issues that deter people from getting the necessary help they need include:
- Lack of access to insurance or poor quality insurance
- Unrealistic cost of insurance
- Poor accessibility to treatment
- Inadequate workforce availability
Florida is ranked #40 out of the 50 states on the accessibility to the above measures. Furthermore, it ranks #49 in total spending on mental health services.
Obviously, there is a disconnect between the need for mental health services and the availability. This poses a higher risk for people with mental illness to get stuck in the criminal justice system. According to the Florida Health Justice Project, defendants with mental illness stay incinerated for eight times as long as people without mental illness for the same charge. It also costs seven times more to keep them incarcerated.
Florida is the 10th leading state for per capita incineration rates. The reason for this is the lack of access to appropriate care. As a result, the same individuals with mental illness end up cycling through the justice system for most of their adult lives.
The Value of Mental Health Courts
The origin of mental health courts is similar to that of drug courts in Florida. Repeat offenders in need of treatment services are the pretext for such courts.
With community mental health resources often failing to support such individuals, courts are seeing an increase in offenders with untreated mental illnesses. However, Florida’s jails and prisons are poorly equipped and receive minimal funding to deal with serious mental illnesses. Therefore, the logical response is to create a mental health court model, a solution-oriented approach.
Most mental health courts usually have a few shared goals:
- To improve public safety by reducing repeat offenders
- To offer support and help improve the quality of life of defendants with mental illness
- Increase defendants’ participation in effective treatment
- Reduce court and corrections-related costs
- Improve administrative efficiency through alternatives to incarceration
A mental health court system can potentially be more effective in the long run than traditional justice system approaches. Monitoring and treating repeat offenders with mental illness can be a lower-cost, more effective remedy than simply incarcerating them.
Current Status of Mental Health Courts in Florida
There are 33 mental health courts currently operating in Florida. All Florida mental health courts share several components like improving response to people with mental illness. According to the Bureau of Justice assistance, the essential elements of a mental health court include:
- Court planning and administration
- A specific target population
- Appropriate participant identification and service referrals
- Particular terms of participation
- Helping defendants make informed choices
- Offering treatment support and services
- A court team to support the defendant
- Diligent monitoring for adherence to court requirements
What Is the Process for Mental Health Courts in Florida?
First, the mental health court must approve a defendant for the program. Then, mental health professionals work with them to develop a court-approved supervision plan.
The program coordinates a treatment and assistance program for the defendant, closely monitoring their progress. In addition, the defendant must appear in court for mandatory hearings and meet conditions of probation if applicable. Another critical factor is for the defendant to agree to remain drug and alcohol-free and refrain from criminal activity.
If a defendant successfully completes the court supervision plan, their charges will be dismissed by the State Attorney. Afterward, they can continue on regular supervision, or probation may end. Finally, the defendant will be referred to mental health services to help make sustainable, long-term changes.
Speak to an Experienced Florida Criminal Defense Attorney
Many criminal defendants with mental illness can avoid serious penalties thanks to Florida’s mental health courts. In addition, defendants can receive support and treatment that may not be otherwise accessible.
If you have a persistent mental illness and are facing criminal charges, contact an experienced criminal defense attorney. In addition, you may be eligible for a mental health court program. The program could allow you to get the help you need and stay on the right track.
Criminal defense attorney Sean K. McQuaid is passionate about protecting the rights of his clients. Contact him today to discuss your options. He can help you develop a strategy to meet your needs and help you avoid criminal charges.