Program Keeps the Mentally Ill out of State Jails; There Are 10 Mental Health Courts in Florida, One in Duval County

Article excerpt

Byline: WENDI ZONGKER

YULEE - The man, hallow-cheeked with dirty blond hair, stood before Judge Brian Davis in Nassau County's mental health court this month.

With his hands clenching his wrists behind his back, he looked down and laughed nervously as Davis asked questions about how his court-ordered treatment was progressing.

The mission of Nassau's mental health court - one of 10 statewide - is to keep mentally ill people out of Florida's jails, said Judi Evans of Florida's National Alliance on Mental Illness. It was the first such court in Northeast Florida.

Evans said 40,000 people with mental illnesses are incarcerated in Florida.

A REVOLVING DOOR

"We're trying to provide a means for people whose mental illness has been the driving force of their involvement with the justice system an opportunity to avoid what is usually a revolving door," Davis said. "It's a misuse of the jail system to have sick people there."

Duval County began a pilot mental health court in January and has six clients, Director Joe Stelma said.

The man meeting with Davis has been seeing the judge for short sessions every two weeks for three months after his arrest for having a concealed weapon.

"I understand that he's trying to help me not to come back here," he said of Davis.

Another man, who appears timid and stutters when he talks, has been before Davis' court every two weeks since December and he said he plans to participate as long as it takes to get him well again.

And that's the program's goal, Davis said.

"The program is not designed to release violent, mentally ill people back onto the streets," he said.

Violent offenders are not eligible. But Davis and Stelma said prosecutors, public defenders and mental health professionals can refer clients who have committed misdemeanors or low-level felonies. …