Broward’s criminal justice system failing mentally ill, too costly

Broward Chief Judge Peter Weinstein, left, and Public Defender Howard Finkelstein

Broward Chief Judge Peter Weinstein, left, and Public Defender Howard Finkelstein

Editors Note:
Last month,  published the story of Broward’s “Forgotten Soldier” – a mentally ill ex-Marine in his late fifties whose journey through the county’s long broken mental health system was marred by illegal confinement and a lack of appropriate care.

The compelling story of the Forgotten Soldier was written by Owen McNamee and Douglas Brawley, two assistant public defenders who represent him. Last week, their boss, elected Broward Public Defender wrote to Broward Chief Judge Peter Weinstein to compare the treatment of the mentally ill by the criminal justice systems of Broward and Miami-Dade. Finkelstein concluded that Broward’s mental health system is backwards, cruel and unnecessarily costly.

“We need to get back on track and Miami-Dade has provided a successful model to follow,” Finkelstein said. Here is Finkelstein’s November 19 letter to Weinstein:

Dear Chief Judge Weinstein,

Last month we sent you a copy of a “The Forgotten Soldier,” the true story of a former Marine, suffering from dementia, and his treatment at the hands of the Broward County felony Mental Health Courts, Broward Behavioral Health Coalition, the Florida Department of Children and Families and the local Baker Act receiving facilities.

Frustrated with the criminal justice system’s shoddy treatment of “The Forgotten Soldier” and in hopes of preventing this from occurring again as dementia becomes more prevalent in our aging society, we recently attended a meeting to explore alternative methods of treating the mentally ill and developmentally disabled.

This meeting was held in Miami between representatives of the Broward County Mental Health Courts and their counterparts from Miami-Dade County. It was clear from the outset that Miami-Dade’s approach to treating mentally ill and developmentally disabled individuals caught in the criminal justice web is much more progressive and enlightened than the methods employed in Broward County. In Miami, they strive to actually help the mentally disabled, in Broward we go out of our way to further frustrate, hurt and imprison them.

Miami-Dade’s approach is a collaborative one between the mentally ill or developmentally disabled, the police, the court system, including the public defender and state attorney, and the managing entity. It starts on the streets of Miami-Dade where nearly 40 percent of their law enforcement officers, representing all 38 police agencies, are CIT trained. The 911 dispatchers are also trained so that CIT trained officers are dispatched to cases involving the mentally ill or developmentally disabled. This training resulted in only nine arrests out of nearly 12,000 contacts between the CIT trained police and the mentally ill and developmentally disabled in 2013. The badge of honor for the police in Miami-Dade County is no longer the arrest and incarceration of the mentally ill but rather their diversion and treatment. Of the nearly 12,000 contacts, approximately ten percent (1200) resulted in a Baker Act evaluation.

Most importantly, in the rare case involving the mentally ill or developmentally disabled that does make it to the criminal justice system, the Miami-Dade State Attorney either declines to file charges or agrees to dismiss the charges after the successful completion of a one year diversion program (Miami-Dade does not place the mentally ill or intellectually disabled on probation). One of these two options is available to all third degree felonies and select nonviolent second degree felonies. The diversion program includes not only housing (when necessary) and treatment, but classes on obtaining employment as well as other life skills. As [Miami-Dade Circuit] Judge [Steven] Leifman said, “we don’t care about competency” in cases involving third degree felonies. Miami-Dade’s State Attorney, unlike Michael Satz’s office, does not file charges against these vulnerable people and keep them forever caught in the criminal justice system.

Although [Broward Circuit] Judge [Mark] Speiser was at the meeting, he has proven that he is concerned only with moving the mentally ill and intellectually disabled through the system. I have spoken to you about the dismal state of our felony mental health court in meetings. I have voiced my opinion that our approach is wrongheaded to both the Mental Health Task Force and to Judge Speiser directly and I have even had to go so far as to advise my clients to opt out of Mental Health Court. Thus far nothing has changed and our circuit fails again and again. We fail in moving these cases out of the criminal system, we fail in reducing the unnecessary tax burden to our county and we fail in helping the very people we were supposed to be helping. We have failed.

As a result of Miami’s approach there are currently only 180 cases involving the mentally ill and developmentally disabled pending in the Miami-Dade County courts. According to Judge Leifman the above approach saves Miami-Dade County eight million dollars per year. It also provides for additional savings because the court employs benefit specialists who apply for disability, Medicare and other benefits for mentally ill and developmentally disabled defendant. These federal benefits now pay for treatment that had previously been provided directly by the taxpayers of Miami-Dade County.

Compare Miami-Dade’s system to ours in which 681 mentally ill and intellectually disabled are on conditional release, 197 are in forensic hospitals and 446 are on probation for a total of 1,324 (excluding capiases and violations of probation) cases involving the mentally ill and developmentally disabled clogging the Broward County Courts. These cases waste county taxpayer money on incarceration, numerous competency evaluations, competency training and supervision while on conditional release and/or pretrial release for a period of up to five years.

If Miami-Dade, with a population nearly one third larger than Broward’s, can implement a compassionate system of care then there is no reason that Broward cannot come out of the Dark Ages and in to the Renaissance of modern mental health treatment.

Change will require a monumental shift in the current thinking of our State Attorney to both allow for the creation and implementation of a mental health pre-trial diversion program and to decline charges where the mentally ill and developmentally disabled actions are a result of their disability. It will require a cosmic shift by the courts away from competency and punishment and toward treatment and community sustainability of the mentally ill and developmentally disabled by having the courage to dismiss charges when the State Attorney refuses to act. It will require Broward Behavioral Health Coalition to require Baker Act receiving facilities to do proper discharge planning and no longer decline treatment for those incarcerated when the basis for the Baker Act is neglect. Finally it will take a commitment from the Broward Police Chiefs Association to require mandatory CIT and dispatcher training.

We need to learn from Miami-Dade County and implement change. We need to stop spending countless taxpayer dollars to prosecute the mentally ill and developmentally disabled, reduce their numbers in the criminal justice system, and do what we can to help them live their lives instead of focusing on competency to proceed. That was the original intent when we developed our mental health court but we lost our way. We need to get back on track and Miami-Dade has provided a successful model to follow.

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  • It is very sad that we continue to arrest people that are mentally ill.
    We need to reopen mental hospitals to give these people medication,
    social services and treat them like people and not criminals.

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