Criminal cases against dozens of people that have been languishing in Broward County’s felony mental health court have been dropped by prosecutors following the publication of “Trapped,” an investigating by The Sun Sentinel.
Reporters learned that people facing minor felony charges in mental health court spent six times as long in the criminal justice system as those whose cases proceeded in regular court. For a system design specifically to avoid this, it was deeply troubling. In fact, it wasn’t just defense attorneys who were concerned. Mental health advocates and even prosecutors agreed something had to be done about mental health court.
The court started out in 2003 with good intentions. The idea was to give them access to treatment in preparation for trial. But in practice, what happened was many were too ill to face the criminal justice system. And while Broward prosecutors had the authority to drop the charges at any point, very few actually did. That meant people were spending years locked up for crimes they had not even been convicted of.
Public defenders say in the months since The Sun Sentinel series was published, prosecutors have been dropping more cases than ever. The state attorney’s office said it intends to drop more once a new state law takes effect this summer. As it now stands, defendants have to first be deemed mentally incompetent, found unable to withstand trial, testify or enter a plea and then wait five consecutive years with that label before their charges must be dropped. The new measure that takes effect in July will allow judges to dismiss these charges after three years.
Assistant State Attorney Peter Holden of the felony trial unit said the first priority is always going to be protection of the community. Still, he conceded there was a need to identify defendants facing non-violent felony charges and determining whether those cases could be dropped.
As our Fort Lauderdale criminal defense lawyers know, for those battling mental illness, being in and out of court certainly doesn’t help further the process in a positive direction. Those in felony mental health court face higher challenges than those in misdemeanor mental health court. That’s because in the latter, the focus is on treatment rather than criminal convictions and punishments.
Still, both can be an uphill struggle because those deemed incapable of facing criminal charges must not only adhere to the requirements of defendants in regular court, but they have additional rules too. This can be especially tough for someone who is mentally ill. Despite being convicted of no crime, they face criminal penalties for failure to adhere to the court’s rules.
The journalists discovered that nearly one-third of those in the felony mental health court program spent five years or more in the system.
Gov. Rick Scott had rejected changes to the system with a bill introduced in 2013, but approved the latest version because while it gave judges the authority to dismiss cases after three years, it did not require them to do so. It also specifically excludes such action for those facing certain kinds of violent crimes.
Call Fort Lauderdale Criminal Defense Attorney Richard Ansara at (954) 761-4011. Serving Broward, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties.
Sun Sentinel investigation spurs change in mental health court, April 16, 2016, By Stephen Hobbs, Sun Sentinel
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Boating Under the Influence Plea Deal in Florida, April 13, 2016, Broward Mental Health Court Defense Lawyer Blog