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Bill would provide for ‘restoration care’ in county jails

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Rep. Jenna Persons-Mulicka

Rep. Jenna Persons-Mulicka

Suspects adjudicated incompetent to proceed could receive mental-health treatment in a county jail instead of a state hospital under bills moving through the Florida Legislature.

The House Children, Families, and Seniors Subcommittee voted overwhelmingly February 3 to approve HB 1249 by Rep. Jenna Persons-Mulicka, R-Ft. Myers.

The measure would give the Department of Children and Families the authority to provide suspects “restoration care” in any facility it deems appropriate.

“There could be a significant wait list for our defendants…who have been adjudicated incompetent,” Persons-Mulicka said. “This bill simply seeks to provide DCF with another option.”

The committee advanced the proposal without discussion or debate.

But a companion, SB 1600 by Sen. Jennifer Bradley, R-Orange Park, drew strong opposition from public defenders in the Senate Children, Families, and Elder Affairs Subcommittee.

Bradley told the committee that the measure would provide suspects with badly needed treatment sooner, and closer to their families and friends.

“It will significantly reduce delay in treatment, it will reduce the possibility that the patient will deteriorate further while awaiting treatment, and it will keep the patient in the community,” Bradley said.

The measures would add language to F.S. §916.13 stating that a “forensic client who is being held in a jail awaiting admission to a Department of Children and Families facility and who is likely to regain competence to proceed may receive treatment at a facility designated by the department.”

The bills would define facility as “a mental health facility operated by a community mental health provider which may be co-located in a county jail and which is deemed appropriate by the department.”

According to a Senate staff analysis, as of January 12, 2022, there were 548 suspects awaiting beds in the state’s three psychiatric hospitals and three contracted treatment centers.

Nearly 500 suspects have been on the waitlist for 15 days, and the average wait is 59 days, the analysis states.

Georgia opened a 16-bed forensic unit in a county jail in 2011 when wait times grew to 60 days, and Colorado and California have similar programs, according to the analysis.

But Seventh Circuit Public Defender Matthew Metz, a board member for the Florida Public Defender Association, warned that jails are an inappropriate setting for people with serious illnesses, such as schizophrenia and traumatic brain injury.

Suspects deemed incompetent to proceed are supposed to be assigned to the least restrictive setting, Metz said.

“We’re going to have folks who shouldn’t be in jail at all going to jail, and those folks who may need longer treatment, who should be in hospitals, are going to be in the system, a place that is really not set up to hold them,” he said.

But Sen. Ben Albritton, R-Bartow, said he couldn’t understand why anyone would oppose the measure.

“What I see is an opportunity to get help to folks who are currently not getting it,” he said.

Sen. Darryl Rouson, R-St. Petersburg, also praised the proposal, and noted that it lacks a mandate.

“Don’t you think this is a good start?” Rouson asked.

Metz disagreed, saying the best way to address the wait lists is to provide DCF with adequate resources. Before the pandemic forced state hospitals to freeze admissions, clients seldom waited for a forensic bed, Metz said.

“Most folks got into the state hospital, were given care, or were either restored to competency and brought back, or were deemed to be unrestorable and brought back,” he said. “The big concern here is that being restored to competency is not an easy thing to do.”

Moments before the committee approved the measure 8-0, Bradley assured her colleagues that the department would not put the most seriously ill suspects in jail-based forensic units.

“It’s not going to work for every patient,” she said. “This would be targeted to the lower acuity patients.”

HB 1249 still faces hearings in the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Subcommittee, the Health Care Appropriations Subcommittee and the Health and Human Services Committee.

SB 1600 faces two more committee hearings.

The 60-day legislative session adjourns March 11.


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