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Mentally ill inmates outstrip facilities

Criminal defendants with mental problems are being treated like "human pingpong balls," making jails more dangerous and leaving the state open to lawsuits, Health and Rehabilitative Services Secretary Jim Towey said Friday.

Towey, who is asking the Legislature for about $4-million a year to expand programs for these inmates, said the demand for treatment now outstrips capacity.

"Their brains and lives are rotting away in jail," Towey said.

Already, HRS is being hauled into court for waiting too long before it places defendants into "forensic" facilities, which treat those who are ruled incompetent to stand trial or not guilty by reason of insanity.

By law, HRS has 15 days from the time it is notified to admit a defendant for such treatment.

But the state has only 795 forensic beds, and demand for them has skyrocketed, Towey said. Last April, 43 people were on a waiting list. That number climbed to 82 in December and 94 Friday. Fifty-one of the 94 have waited longer than the required 15 days, an average of eight weeks longer.

In Bradenton, Assistant Public Defender Peter Belmont said he had three clients who were ruled incompetent in October. They were not admitted for treatment until February, he said, after a Manatee County judge found HRS in contempt of court.

In Pinellas, Circuit Judge Claire Luten ordered HRS to place aggravated battery defendant Paul Yonke in treatment Tuesday. Yonke, jailed in August, had been found incompetent Dec. 14. HRS blamed some of the wait on a paper work delay.

Towey said he is not sure what is behind the surge in demand for the beds. He suspects a number of things. In South Florida, he said, some patients wind up in forensic beds because other mental health programs cannot accommodate Spanish speakers.

Elsewhere, he said, communities neglect their homeless populations and jail employees fail to treat or medicate mentally ill inmates. "There's a shell game going on between the jails and the homeless shelters and the forensic facilities," he said.

Locked in jail, these inmates often deteriorate, get into fights with the guards and other inmates, and are charged with more crimes.

They often need more and costlier treatment by the time HRS finds room for them.

"It's inhumane to have someone in a jail that's not getting treatment," Towey said. "That is dead wrong, and we're seeing that over and over."

As a short-term solution, Towey plans to add 66 forensic beds to the Florida State Hospital in Chattahoochee and the North Florida Evaluation and Treatment Center in Gainesville, and add 15 civil beds to the South Florida State Hospital in Pembroke Pines.

He said HRS has the $928,000 it needs to pay for this expansion through the end of June.

But to keep the program going and improve community treatment programs, the agency needs more money from the Legislature.