Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Overbuilt prisons, underfunded mh systems

Mary Beth Pfeiffer weighs in on the terrible situation in Florida in today's Miami Herald.

Pfeiffer is author of the forthcoming book Crazy in America: The Hidden Tragedy of the Criminalized Mentally Ill.

Pfeiffer, a well-respected author, notes that the small number of inmates who are drawing all the attention are just the tip of the iceberg. We would like to add that Florida has one tool that could help - a reformed Baker Act allows people to get court-ordered community treatment. Counties just need to start using it and may then be able to help some of these people who end up instead behind bars.

These inmates are a vivid reminder of the price to be paid when a society overbuilds ts prisons and underfunds its mental-health system, a demonstration of how long erm care of the mentally ill has shifted to the place where there is always a bed. Since 1997, Florida's prison population has swelled by 44 percent, to 89,000 inmates. Meantime, in a state that had 56 state psychiatric beds per 100,000 people in 1990, there are now eight. Squeezed by flagging reimbursements, 36 private psychiatric hospitals have closed in Florida since 1992 -- taking an additional 4,400 beds ....

Just 5 percent [of those inmates] were known to the mental-health system before they were jailed. Had they received care, they likely would not have gotten so sick -- and their prospects for recovery would not be so dim. They also might not have committed crimes that put them behind bars.

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