Department of Children and Families Secretary Lucy Hadi must pay $80,000 for failing to remove mentally ill inmates from the Pinellas County Jail, a judge ruled Thursday.
The fine is in addition to the criminal contempt charges Hadi already faces for keeping severely mentally ill inmates in jail - rather than in a state hospital - longer than Florida law allows.
Pinellas Circuit Judge Crockett Farnell issued the fine after he said Hadi failed to comply with his orders to move the inmates to a state forensic hospital, and for missing the deadline to appeal the Nov. 16 order.
Farnell fined Hadi between $5,000 and $11,000 each for 10 inmates who have stayed in jail longer than the 15 days state law allows after an inmate has been declared incompetent to stand trial.
"That's a little more than 15 days in my book," Farnell said after Assistant Public Defender Violet Assaid said one inmate spent almost three months in jail after he was deemed unable to assist in his own defense.
Hadi was not available for comment, but a spokesman for the DCF said the department will appeal. Although the fine is technically against Hadi personally, DCF spokesman Al Zimmerman said the department will cover it if the appeal fails.
The fine, Zimmerman noted, is roughly the same amount of money it costs the agency to provide a bed in a state mental hospital.
"By making this order, the judge has taken one bed away from us," Zimmerman said. "We'd like to work with the court in solving this problem, not against the court."
Farnell ordered the fines just over a week after he charged Hadi with seven counts of indirect criminal contempt for failing to get the inmates out of jail.
The maximum penalty for each of those counts is five months and 29 days in jail.
That action led Gov. Jeb Bush to say Farnell was throwing a judicial tantrum.
Bush spokesman Anthony DeLuise said Thursday that the fines "are not the most constructive way to resolve the issue."
But after Farnell charged Hadi with contempt, the DCF said it had found $5-million for new beds, although the agency concedes that it needs significantly more money to solve the problem.
Farnell's fine is the latest move by judges and lawyers statewide who are trying to clear local jails of the mentally ill.
State law requires the DCF to move mentally incompetent inmates out of local jails and into mental health facilities within 15 days. But the DCF wait list for beds swelled this year to more than 300 people, and inmates have languished in jail for an average of about three months. Some have harmed themselves during the long waits.
As of Monday, 237 inmates in the state's jails have been declared incompetent and have been in jail longer than 15 days, Zimmerman said.
Other Florida counties also have taken the DCF to task over the issue. Hillsborough County sued the agency, as did inmates in some South Florida jails. A judge in North Florida threatened to have a mentally sick inmate dropped off at Hadi's office if the agency didn't remove him from jail.
"The number of beds becomes the driving force, not the fact that my clients are facing huge penalties," Assaid said.
While Hadi's fine is unusual, it isn't the first time a government official has been held personally liable for official actions in Florida. Miriam Oliphant, the former Broward County elections supervisor blamed for voting problems during the 2002 primary election, was initially fined $55,000 by the Florida Elections Commission for "willfully" violating state elections laws.
Bush removed Oliphant from office, but the fines were ultimately dropped.
Times researcher Angie Drobnic Holan contributed to this report. Alisa Ulferts can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2379.