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Orange County may try diversion program for mentally ill people charged with minor crimes

Orlando Sentinel - 8/21/2018

Aug. 21--Orange County may launch a pilot project to divert non-violent defendants with mental illnesses from the criminal-justice system.

The project, proposed by commissioner Jennifer Thompson, would be modeled after a similar program which has proven successful in Miami-Dade County, home to one of the nation's largest populations of mentally ill persons.

Orange County commissioners are expected to discuss the $400,000 proposal this morning.

"We all know someone," said Orange County mayoral candidate and District 3 commissioner Pete Clarke.

He said locking up people is not an effective way to provide mental-health services.

"People languish there," he said. "Jail's not the place to do it. The environment is not warm and fuzzy."

George Skene / Orlando Sentinel

Orange County Commissioner Jennifer Thompson, pictured in her office in 2011, has proposed a pilot project to divert non-violent defendants with mental illnesses from the criminal-justice system.

Orange County Commissioner Jennifer Thompson, pictured in her office in 2011, has proposed a pilot project to divert non-violent defendants with mental illnesses from the criminal-justice system. (George Skene / Orlando Sentinel)

Last month, Thompson said her interest in creating a program was stirred by the struggles of a family member who developed a manic-depressive illness after a heart attack.

She identified the family member, but the Orlando Sentinel is not revealing details to protect the individual's privacy.

He was "moments from becoming a statistic in Orange County and being one of those individuals on the street," Thompson said at a July 17 commission meeting.

Thompson asked fellow commissioners to approve a $400,000 budget amendment to pay for the program.

She said a study by the Florida Supreme Court found that over a period of five years 97 mentally-ill people in Miami-Dade County accounted for 2,200 arrests, 27,000 days in jail, 13,000 days in psychiatric facilities and nearly $14 Million in public costs.

According to other studies, most mentally ill people entangled in the legal system have committed misdemeanors or nonviolent crimes.

Miami-Dade diversion programs have been so successful the county was able to close one of its jails, which has resulted in a savings of $12 million.

Orange County was considering a similar program in 2016, but the effort was sidetracked, she said.

"I don't want to walk away from this job with the county commission without moving it forward," said Thompson, whose eight-year run as District 4 commissioner will end this year because of term limits,

In an interview with WFME, the flagship National Public Radio station in Orlando, Clarke said the need is great.

"We have beds but they're so expensive. They just fill up so rapidly. One of the keys is to extend access to counseling. And meds if they need meds. But I think the foray into counseling could help a lot of people," Clarke told the station.

Clarke says when inmates with mental health get the right resources, their chances for a full recovery improve.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness found about 40 percent of people with mental illness get the help they need.

About one of every five adults in the U.S.--43.8 million, or 18.5%--experiences mental illness in a given year.

Since Miami-Dade began its "Criminal Mental Health Project" a decade ago, fewer people in psychiatric crisis are being arrested and booked into the jail, Thompson said in a memo to Mayor Teresa Jacobs and fellow commissioners.

"Orange County Corrections and our local criminal justice partners have inherited the responsibility to address the complex needs of seriously mentally ill individuals whose disease results in law enforcement action or arrest," she said in the memo, obtained by the Orlando Sentinel. "In the scenario of nonviolent, low-level offenders, this approach is inefficient and costly for the system, as well as clinically inadequate for individuals with serious mental illness."

Thompson wants Orange County to to adopt elements of the Miami-Dade program, including pre-booking and post-booking interventions to improve care and reduce repeat offenses by diverting non-violent misdemeanor offenders into community-based services.

The mayor, who revealed she lost a brother to bipolar disease, endorsed the diversion concept.

"I think we need to understand this better," Jacobs told Thompson at the July meeting. "But you have my word today. I'm 100 percent with you."

shudak@orlandosentinel.com or 407-650-6361.

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(c)2018 The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.)

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