Newspaper article Sarasota Herald Tribune

Crisis. Arrest. Repeat. | Forum Focuses on Ways to Better Serve Florida's Mentally Ill

Newspaper article Sarasota Herald Tribune

Crisis. Arrest. Repeat. | Forum Focuses on Ways to Better Serve Florida's Mentally Ill

Article excerpt


SARASOTA -- The biggest mental health care facility in Sarasota County is not a hospital, clinic or ward -- it's the county jail.

On any given night a third or more of the 1,000 inmates the jail can hold are there due to mental-health issues, and without crisis intervention they almost certainly will return again and again, Sarasota County Sheriff Tom Knight said at a public forum Thursday.

Knight wants to alleviate the revolving-door arrests of the mentally ill -- most who are homeless -- with a jail-diversion program that could

transfer most of those "low-end offenders" into rehab initiatives capable of steering them into productive stability and keeping them off the streets. The proposal, which also has the initial backing of the local State Attorney, Public Defender, Court Administrator and a judge, would provide legal advice and mental health care for those defendants who meet the criteria for the program.

But in a state that ranks 49th in per capita spending on mental health services, that proposal pivots on one big question:

Where will the estimated $900,000 a year the program will cost come from?

Nearly 300 people showed up Thursday evening at the Herald- Tribune Hot Topics forum at the Sarasota Orchestra's Holley Hall. The discussion was moderated by Herald-Tribune Editorial Page Editor Tom Tryon. Panelists offered myriad ideas on alleviating the burdens placed on law enforcement by the often-homeless mentally ill. But as Mary Ruiz, CEO of Centerstone behavioral health hospital, reminded listeners at the forum, lawmakers have virtually abandoned the cause in the nation's third most populous state.

Noting how $4 billion nationally was sliced from mental health care services during the recession without being reinstated, Florida "would have to have a $450 million increase to be below average" on a nationwide scale.

Consequently, Knight told listeners his deputies have become de facto crisis intervention agents who, last year, served 1,051 Baker Act papers for emergency mental-health evaluation and another 333 Marchman Act orders for the temporary detention and evaluation of people with substance abuse problems. …

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