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A PERSUASIVE CASE TO KEEP CELLS FOR CRIMINALS

How's this for casting a courtroom drama? A county court jurist was the key witness. There was no opposing counsel, though a skeptical budgeter warned of potential long-term consequences from a wrong decision. Sitting in judgment, minus the robes, were Pasco County commissioners.

The cliffhanger, however, never materialized. Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender Bob Dillinger successfully argued his case and received a favorable ruling from a previously skeptical commission majority.

The wise verdict protects and expands a program to divert from jail mentally ill accused of minor infractions like trespassing or shoplifting.

To bolster his case, Dillinger lined up testimony from county jailers, health care and social workers. Pasco County Judge Candy Vandercar provided the clinching evidence, asking commissioners, "Why is justice better over in Pinellas?''

It was a lot of attention for a $98,000 appropriation, but amid the current task of identifying $15.8-million in spending cuts from the proposed county budget, the commission scrutiny was welcome.

Dillinger's program began in Pinellas and expanded to Pasco after the county agreed to fund it in 2005. It identifies mentally ill inmates after they are booked and places them into less-expensive community programs better equipped to handle their medical and social service needs.

The county appropriation, which could be parlayed into a partial match for a three-year, $3-million total federal grant, pays for temporary housing, prescription drugs and therapy for the mentally ill. For the first nine months of the fiscal year, Dillinger said, the program had diverted 243 people, with only 6 percent getting into trouble again.

It is an impressive success rate. As noted here previously, there is no shortage of potential clients as jails and state prisons serve as warehouses for the mentally ill.

Before the program began in Pasco, 44 percent of the 1,300 inmates received mental health medications, overburdening a jail medical staff and taking up cell space for weeks or months, even though they are better served in less costly adult foster care or a similar treatment center.

In that regard, the program shouldn't be considered an expense, but an investment.

"You can pay for them in jail or you can let us work with them,'' said Dillinger. "We're cheaper than jail.''

County budget director Mike Nurrenbrock urged commissioners to be wary of a three-year commitment, pending the January vote on amending property tax exemptions, which could mean reduced revenue for the county.

The caution is warranted, but so, too, is this program, which diverts appropriate detainees to more qualified treatment providers.

It also makes economic sense, considering the ongoing planning for a multimillion-dollar expansion of the crowded county jail in Land O'Lakes.

The county will be better served by reserving those jail beds for people accused of more serious criminal offenses.

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