Mental health court in Florida faces controversy, criticism about delays

Though intended to treat and punish at the same time, growing segment of legal system faces troubles

FORT LAUDERDALE, Florida — Mitch and Kathy Stein have kept only a few of the 40 tortoises and turtles that used to belong to their son, Josh.

“He loved reptiles,” Kathy Stein recalled. “And he knew everything about them.”

This fondness, however, eventually got him into trouble with the law. The Steins said their son, diagnosed as bipolar, became caught in a mental health court system that was set up to help people like him. But ultimately, they said, it set off a series of events that led to his death.

In 2012, Josh, then 35, disguised himself in a wide-brimmed hat, entered a restricted area in the nearby South Florida Wildlife Center, and stole a red-footed tortoise. His parents said he returned it six months later.

“He took it back in better health than he got it,” Mitch Stein said. “End of story.”

Within days, however, the police called to say Josh was under arrest. He turned himself in, and prosecutors charged him with felony grand theft and burglary, before releasing him the same day.

“They said the turtle was more than $300, so it was a felony,” Mitch Stein explained. “The turtle was worth between $100 and $200 … pushing it, $300.”

Josh’s case ended up at the Broward County Felony Mental Health Court, created in 2003 to treat mentally ill defendants while holding them accountable for their alleged crimes. The idea was to bring mental health specialists, judges and attorneys together to move mentally ill people quickly through the system while being sensitive to their specific needs.

Special courts for the mentally ill are spreading across the United States and numbered around 350 in 2013, according to the Council of State Governments Justice Center. The courts have helped many defendants get treatment and prevented them from committing new crimes. But in Florida’s Broward County, critics say the felony mental health court is harming defendants more than helping them.

“When we started, people seemed to be on the same page,” explained one of the court’s founders, Broward County Public Defender Howard Finkelstein. “Over time the court morphed and it became this difficult journey for the mentally ill.”

Today the court’s cases, ranging from car break-ins and minor drug offenses to sexual battery and kidnappings, are piling up.

Ari Porth, one of two judges presiding over it, said low-level felony cases take an average of three years to wind their way through the system. That’s compared to about six months for similar cases in regular court. Nationwide, mental health court programs take an average of 18 months to complete, according to the Council of State Governments Justice Center.

The result is that the court is now dealing with a backlog of 1,200 cases, Porth said, adding, “It’s certainly a full day’s work.”

One of the reasons for the backlog, he explained, is that 10 to 15 percent of his cases should never be filed in the first place. “I see it on a daily basis,” Porth said, referring to nonviolent offenders he believes should be sent to treatment, not jail.

Josh Stein with his sister, Megan.
Courtesy of the Stein Family

Yet another problem is the length of time it can take for a case to be dismissed.

When a defendant’s case is heard, he or she is typically evaluated by court psychiatrists. If they find the alleged offender to be mentally incompetent, that person has to meet several conditions, such as going to counseling and attending classes about the court process.

Many defendants are sent to mental hospitals or community-based treatment centers. But others are forced to wait in jail until a treatment bed elsewhere becomes available.

“Ideally jail is not the right setting for someone who is mentally ill,” Porth said. “Unfortunately the jail is the largest mental health provider in the county…There are not enough services for the mentally ill.”

Some defendants “improve” quickly, are declared competent, and get prosecuted.

But others have spent years taking competency classes and still have not been found mentally rehabilitated enough to answer their charges.

“When no progress is being made,” Porth said, “that’s when we have the backlog … and a frustration that all the parties seem to feel.”

Under Florida law, if a defendant is declared incompetent for five years in a row, his or her case must be thrown out. Judge Mark Speiser, the other judge presiding over the Broward County Felony Mental Health Court, has been pushing the state legislature to reduce the period to three years.

Porth told Al Jazeera only the Broward County State Attorney’s office has the power to dismiss mentally incompetent cases in under five years.

“They have dismissed some cases,” he said. “There are other cases that are ripe for review.”

Public Defender Finkelstein also found fault with the State Attorney’s Office.

“They let too many people into the system,” Finkelstein said. “They refuse to let anyone out of the system, and what happens is the system becomes completely overloaded and overwhelmed.”

They let too many people into the system. They refuse to let anyone out of the system, and what happens is the system becomes completely overloaded and overwhelmed.

Howard Finkelstein

Broward County Public Defender

State Attorney Michael Satz, who has led the office for four decades, declined a request for an interview. Instead, his office sent Al Jazeera a copy of his recent opinion article. Satz said his office is hesitant to drop charges “without some attempt to get the defendant proper treatment that may help prevent that person from re-offending.”

He added, “Some defendants claim to be mentally incompetent to avoid facing felony charges.”

Satz said his office is supporting a pilot program to send mentally ill defendants to treatment instead of charging them with crimes, but he blamed a lack of funding for the initiative’s slow start.

Meanwhile some defendants said the court has helped them in certain ways.

“I had a drug problem, and I haven’t done drugs in a long time,” said Adam Dobrin, who appeared in court in January on a minor drug offense. “I benefited from that.” But he said his case would have been resolved much faster had he gone to a regular court. So far, he said, he has been going through the mental health court system for three years, a period he described as “an insane long time.”

Mitch and Kathy Stein said Josh also got stuck in the system. Caseworkers said he skipped his competency classes; the Steins said he attended them, though he found them “laughable.” The judge reprimanded him for failing to keep quiet in court and follow instructions. Then he followed up with penalties: first an ankle monitor and later, house arrest.

“He couldn’t go out to feed his turtles,” Mitch Stein said. “If you know anything about mental illness, you’re making it worse by keeping them confined.”

“I saw the decline of my son’s mental health,” Kathy Stein added. “I saw him worrying constantly.”

Josh’s parents transferred his case to a regular court, and the house arrest was lifted. But they said by then, Josh was emotionally scarred.

One day, in December 2014, they came home to find him dead, having overdosed on painkillers.

“I went in and I saw my child lying flat on his face, with blood coming out of his mouth,” Kathy Stein said. “He was dead, and I wanted to die, too. I really did.”

Mitch Stein believes if it hadn’t been for the felony mental health court, his son would still be alive today. He wants it shut down.

Judge Speiser declined a request for an interview. But the State Attorney’s office told Al Jazeera in an email: “Mr. Stein’s death ... is certainly tragic ... However, the State Attorney’s Office handled his stolen property case appropriately.”

“Many people who have mental illness are court ordered to attend treatment programs, and this saves many lives. This young man unfortunately opted out of the mental health program that perhaps could have helped him.” 

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