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FL agency chief threatened with jail for failure to get treatment for mentally ill inmates

The Associated Press

ST. PETERSBURG, Florida- A judge threatened to jail the head of the state Department of Children & Families if the agency cannot explain why it consistently has failed to get mentally ill jail inmates into psychiatric treatment.

Under Florida law, jail inmates found incompetent to stand trial must be turned over to the agency and placed into treatment within 15 days.

An assistant public defender in Miami, Carlos Martinez, said the average wait time had spiked to more than two months, and his office and public defenders in Broward and Hillsborough counties have filed court motions to force DCF to treat the inmates.

Circuit Judge Crockett Farnell found the agency in contempt last week and ordered fines. On Tuesday, he went farther, ordering DCF Secretary Lucy Hadi to appear in court next month to answer why she should not be held in contempt for failing to abide by the law. She could face more than two years in jail.

Hadi has acknowledged a problem but said it surfaced with a dramatic increase in mentally ill inmates, like a “tsunami,” that the agency did not have the bed space to handle.

“We don’t control the pipeline,” she told The Miami Herald last week.

A lawyer representing mentally ill prisoners said the agency and Hadi are breaking the law and should have to answer for it. Records show more than 300 defendants are still jailed and waiting to be moved to a hospital for treatment, the Herald reported.

“Regular citizens who ignore court orders go to jail,” said Bob Dillinger, the Pinellas County public defender who represents several inmates waiting to be taken to a DCF-operated psychiatric hospital. “I don’t think government people should be any different.”

Agency spokesman Al Zimmerman said the agency was working aggressively to solve the bed space problem and would ask lawmakers to move $5 million (euro3.88 million) from other agency services to pay for new beds at the three state hospitals that take those patients.

“The secretary being led off in handcuffs is not going to help add more beds that are desperately needed by these people,” he said.