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Governor Backs Mental Health Changes For Courts

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
The Florida Channel
House Judiciary Chairman Charles McBurney.

Gov. Rick Scott on Friday signed a bill that supporters said will help the court system address issues with criminal defendants who have mental illnesses.

Lawmakers unanimously approved the measure (HB 439), sponsored by House Judiciary Chairman Charles McBurney, R-Jacksonville, and Senate Judiciary Chairman Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami.

"Many people with undiagnosed or untreated mental illness end up in our jails and prisons. They don't belong there,'' Diaz de la Portilla said in a statement about the bill earlier this week. "With the proper treatment they could not only alleviate the already over-crowded corrections system, but also be productive members of society."

The bill makes a series of changes and could lead to counties establishing treatment-based mental health court programs. Among other things, it would expand eligibility for veterans' courts, which can help lead to military veterans receiving treatment for mental-health or substance-abuse issues.

Some of the $65 million in new mental health funding is going to several of the state's Veterans Treatment Courts.

The Hillsborough Veterans Treatment Court, overseen by Circuit Judge Greg Holder, is receiving fundign for the first time, $150,000.

"It is my hope that we can use some of these monies for additional therapies above and beyond what these veterans may be entitled to at the Veterans Administration," Holder said Monday.

Holder said veterans use federal resources when possible but the court will also use state and community based services, so the new money will improve access.

"Unfortunately in many cases, beds are just not available at these very specialized mental health treatment facilities," Holder said.

He added that Hillsborough Circuit Chief Judge Ronald Ficarrotta is in the process of setting up a specialty Mental Health Court to provide similar treatment options for mental health and substance abuse issues to those who are not veterans.

Nonrecurring general funds for veterans' treatment intervention programs:

  • Duval               $112,032
  • Hillsborough  $150,000
  • Manatee          $150,000
  • Pasco               $ 150,000
  • Pinellas           $150,000
  • Sarasota          $150,000
  • Seminole         $150,000

Recurring general revenue funds for veterans' treatment intervention programs:

  • Alachua           $150,000
  • Clay                  $150,000
  • Duval               $200,000
  • Escambia        $150,000
  • Leon                 $125,000
  • Okaloosa         $150,000
  • Orange             $200,000
  • Pasco                $150,000
  • Pinellas            $150,000

Bobbie O’Brien has been a Reporter/Producer at WUSF since 1991. She reports on general news topics in Florida and the Tampa Bay region.