It should come as little surprise that persons who are mentally ill comprise a significant portion of the incarcerated population. A recent report by the Treatment Advocacy Center indicated that American prisons and jails house an estimated 360,000 inmates with mental illness – or about 10 times the number of mentally ill patients in state psychiatric hospitals.
Now, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel has taken a look at that issue from a micro perspective, analyzing how it has affected those specifically in Broward County.
The crux of what reporters discovered is this:
- Those charged with minor felonies in Broward’s mental health court face punishment even when they are never found guilty;
- These individuals spend six times longer in the criminal justice system than those in regular court;
- About one-third of these individuals spend five years or more in the criminal justice system – even with no conviction at all!
These revelations were part of a six-month investigation conducted by the paper into the Broward County Mental Health Court, which was unveiled a dozen years ago. The goal was always two-fold: Treat mentally ill defendants, but also hold them to account for criminal actions.
It was a worthwhile endeavor. But somewhere along the way, those goals seem to have been lost. Those who are herded into the system end up with a host of requirements those in regular courts don’t have. Yet if they slip up, they are punished criminally – even if they were never found guilty of a crime in the first place.
Our Broward criminal defense lawyers want to drive home the point that people in this system require good legal representation. Otherwise, the risk of their rights being trampled is high.
Some of the examples outlined by the newspaper include:
- An average three-year wait for ruling in mental health court, compared to a six-month wait in regular court;
- While those in mental health court are ruled to be incapable of facing charges, they are still required to abide by all the rules handed down by regular courts – and then some;
- Defendants who are mentally ill and miss treatment sessions get placed on house arrest or put into jail;
- Some defendants sit in jail for months awaiting transfer to a mental health facility because there are no available beds at those facilities.
The paper points the finger firstly at the local state attorney’s office, which for a number of years has refused dismissal of cases against mentally ill defendants who are too ill to stand trial, even for minor, non-violent offenses. In so doing, prosecutors say, they can “keep tabs” on suspects, which compels treatment and promotes public safety.
But what does this mean for defendants’ rights? Generally, it means they are stuck in a system for years for relatively minor charges that they are never healthy enough to account for. Some criminal defense attorneys refer to this as “an endless loop.”
Prosecutors, facing mounting pressure from local mental health advocates as well as increasing questions from local media, say they are planning to change the way they approach these cases. In December, the agency agreed to foot the bill for 60 treatment slots at a local mental health agency, which they hope will reduce the 1,200 backlog of cases pending in mental health court.
Call Fort Lauderdale Criminal Defense Attorney Richard Ansara at (954) 761-4011. Serving Broward, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties.
Broward Court Fails Mentally Ill People, Jan. 7, 2015, By Amy Shipley, John Maines and Ann Choi, Sun-Sentinel
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