Lawmakers call mental illness 'epidemic' in Florida's jails, prison

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Florida lawmakers call mental illness an epidemic that is sweeping through the state's jails and prisons.

Rep. Janet Adkins, R-Fernandina Beach, who held a mental health workshop at Jacksonville's City Hall Thursday, said mentally ill inmates who are released go on to commit more violent crimes against the public.

Adkins began the workshop talking about the October 2014 slaying of Janette Harriford, who police say was killed by her son, 28-year-old Henry Harriford, who has a history of mental illness. Adkins said it's one of several murders that could have been prevented if people known to have mental issues got adequate treatment.

"This was senseless death by all accounts because he refused to take his medication," Adkins said.

Mental health experts from across the state offered opinions on ways to reform the way mental health patients are treated and monitored. 

"Americans with severe mental illness are three times more likely to be in prison or jail rather than a mental health facility," said Dr. Dean Autherheide, director of mental health services for the Florida Department of Corrections. "That's tragic."

Autherheide pointed out that prisons were never intended to be mental health institutions, but according to national data 55 percent of male inmates have at least mild mental health issues and 75 percent of female inmates need at least mild mental health treatment.

"There isn't a day that goes by that you don't hear a tragic story about a mentally ill person being incarcerated in our jails and prison," said Autherheide. "That's a national scene, but we mirror what's happening in the nation."

Florida Tax Watch representative Elie Pilosena said prisoners with mental illness increased by 112 percent between 1996 and 2014. She suggested front-end treatment for the mentally ill the first time the state comes in contact with them. 

"Florida needs to ensure that its outpatient treatment is used," Piloseno said.

Among the many suggestions for policy reform: 

  • An expansion of the mental health court for nonviolent felonies
  • Increased use of outpatient treatment programs
  • Additional funding for DCF's mental health programs

Katherine Burns told the panel her sister was stabbed 97 times by a mentally ill man who wasn't taking his medications. She said the entire mental health system needs reform.

"I think that if we get our act together and intervene through mental health courts and identify the people coming into the jail, we can make a big impact among the mentally ill who stay incarcerated," Burns said.

Florida ranks 49th in the nation when it comes to how much money the state spends on those who need mental health treatment. Adkins said she plans on proposing legislation that will tackle the issue by providing more funding.

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Tarik anchors the 4, 5:30 and 6:30 p.m. weekday newscasts and reports with the I-TEAM.