New Broward Mental Health Diversion Off to Start, But a Slow One

Following a scathing report criticizing treatment of mentally ill defendants who languish sometimes for years in the criminal justice system (and six times longer than a person with comparable charges in regular court , the Broward State Attorneys Office devised a partial solution: A mental health diversion program that would get people out of the criminal justice system.sad

The idea, modeled after a program launched in Miami-Dade in 2008, focuses on treatment – rather than incarceration – for those who are mentally ill. Non-violent offenders without lengthy rap sheets who have been diagnosed with a severe mental illness would be vetted by the state attorneys office. Those accepted would receive housing support, therapy, medication management and other assistance. Those who successfully complete the program (in six months to a year) would be allowed to have the criminal charges dropped.

It’s a start, critics say, but so far, the program has accepted just one applicant. What’s more, even when it reaches capacity at 60 defendants, that’s not going to make much of a dent when there are an estimated 1,200 cases overflowing in felony mental health court. Plus, there is no guarantee of assistance to those who are already enmeshed in the system, charged with minor felonies. 

An investigation by The Sun Sentinel revealed the average defendant who winds up in felony mental health court is going to spend six times longer in the court system than they would if they had simply gone through the process in regular court.

Fully a third of these defendants are in the system in Broward for five years or more – without ever having been found guilty of a crime. Although the state attorneys office does have discretion to dismiss cases, it doesn’t do so often.

Following the Sentinel’s published report. Broward State Attorney Michael Satz vowed to review any long-term case that was brought to his attention. Public defenders have called for the office to use “common sense” in these cases.

Felony mental health court was started in Broward with good intentions: Breaking the revolving door cycle of the mentally ill in the criminal court system. But it falls far short of the Miami-Dade model, which has been renowned nationally, with representatives from across the country coming to learn more about it and copying it in their own jurisdictions.

It started with a diversion program for mentally ill charged with misdemeanors. That went well. In 2008, the state attorney their launched another diversion program for those charged with felonies. It started with treatment of just 15 defendants. It has since expanded to 150 defendants annually. Over an eight-year period, some 1,000 people have received treatment rather than jail.

And the results seem solid: Of those who started the program early on, 90 percent have stayed out of trouble since they completed the program. Estimates are the program has saved the county some $3.5 million in jail costs, which is calculated based on before-and-after arrests and convictions.

In Broward County, the track record is not as shining. Forty percent of those who went through Broward’s felony mental health court ended up re-offending.

In Miami-Dade, the program relies on a cooperation of defense attorneys, prosecutors and judges. The state attorney has to be willing to drop at least some of the most serious charges. That provides incentive to defendants. Those who run the program say a critical point is they can’t be a threat to public safety. If a defendant is re-arrested or refuses to go to treatment, they are reverted back to the regular court system.

Broward officials now say they will make good this year on working to fill those 60 promised slots in its own diversion program, which involves a partnership with the Broward Behavioral Health Coalition.

If you are a defendant diagnosed with a mental illness and facing felony charges in Broward County, contact us today to learn more about how we may be able to help.

Call Fort Lauderdale Criminal Defense Attorney Richard Ansara at (954) 761-4011. Serving Broward, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties.

Additional Resources:

Broward County mental health diversion program off to a slow start, Jan. 22, 2016, By Stephen Hobbs, The Sun Sentinal

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