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Sunday, Sep 21, 2014
Commentary

New program aims to help mentally ill offenders

Published:

On any given day as many as 18.9 percent among men and 42 percent among women, or 500 inmates at the Hillsborough County Jail, struggle with some form of mental illness. Most of them linger in the jail for an average of 48 days at taxpayers’ cost on misdemeanor violations. Most of them never receive help, leaving them to get released, then get re-arrested for similar non-violent offenses and thus continuing the “revolving door” impact on our jail system.

In many parts of our county these mentally ill offenders are more likely to wind up in our emergency rooms or jail than counseling. This is at a cost that researchers estimate, based on 2011 projections for 537 mentally ill misdemeanants for 48 days (average length of stay) times $100.06 (average daily jail cost), equals $2,579,146.50, not including court costs, medical care, etc.

The jail has had 465 new arrests with mental illness in the past 12 months. The problem is growing, and the jail is becoming a de-facto mental health facility.

But a novel jail diversion program starts Friday in our Hillsborough County Jail system. Credit is to be given to Sheriff David Gee and Col. Jim Privetera for their vision and courage to tackle this problem head on.

When misdemeanants are picked up by law enforcement, they will be taken to the jail diversion door instead of booking, which if the offender is willing, will divert them from a jail cell to community services for a minimum of 90 days. If they comply with the program, they will not be prosecuted.

It’s a win-win for our community, with these positive outcomes:

Decriminalizing mental illness and providing an alternative to criminal charges.

Redirecting valuable jail and justice resources through an 80 percent decrease in booking for mentally ill offenders.

Enhancing public safety by letting law enforcement stay on the streets, getting the violent criminals and providing treatment for those in need, and decreasing jail bed days.

Decreasing emergency services in our hospitals, with up to 75 percent less frequent emergency room visits.

Measuring treatment outcomes for future mental health needs in the county.

If this sounds too touchy-feely, the results are concrete. We verify that the Sheriff’s Office saves $250,000 for every 1 percent decrease in the recidivism among the “frequent flyer” offenders in the jail system.

Under the old system the only way these offenders could get help was to commit a dangerous crime. That is not acceptable.

We can’t continue to ignore the problem. Counties in Florida have lagged behind the rest of the nation in addressing this serious problem. Our county is willing to commit resources to help those who need help and provide a long-term solution for those who wish to take responsibility for themselves.

We are giving hope to these individuals.

Sandra L. Murman is a Hillsborough County commissioner, District 1. She is the board’s vice chair.

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