Lawmakers to Consider More Money for Mentally Ill

TALLAHASSEE -

The legislative panel that approves spending items when lawmakers aren't in session will meet next month to try to find more than $15 million to help provide treatment for mentally ill jail inmates.

State law requires jail inmates who are found to be mentally incompetent to be placed into treatment by the Department of Children & Families within 15 days. But the agency has a long waiting list that includes more than 250 inmates who have been waiting more than 15 days.

The agency has said it simply doesn't have the budget to boost bed space immediately.

Gov. Jeb Bush said earlier this month that the problem is an unexplained spike in the number of inmates who are found to be mentally ill. He was trying to figure out how to quickly increase the agency's budget.

Bush spokeswoman Alia Faraj said Wednesday that top lawmakers had agreed that the Legislative Budget Commission would meet in January and try to move $15 million to $18 million from other places in the budget to meet the need.

The commission includes legislators from both chambers and meets regularly when the Legislature isn't in session to address financial needs that can't wait until the regular session, when the state budget is written.

The new money would be used to add beds and staff to existing facilities to deal with the backlog. It would also be used to provide more community services for the mentally ill.

The state is facing a federal lawsuit over the issue and judges around the state have complained that they haven't been able to get inmates into treatment as required by law.

Meanwhile, newspapers reported Thursday that DCF has asked for more money to treat the mentally ill for several years but has been rebuffed by Bush when he has sent his budget requests to lawmakers.

The Orlando Sentinel, Sarasota Herald-Tribune and St. Petersburg Times reported that the agency's budget requests were regularly reduced by the governor - one year by 95 percent, even though the agency was pushing for the money to keep the mentally ill out of jail.

Bush has said that neither his office nor the agency could have predicted the spike in the need for treatment.

The same has already happened in the plans for the coming budget year. DCF requested $314.7 million for 2007-2008, but after meeting with officials from the governor's office, the request was pared to $124.1 million.

When Gov.-elect Charlie Crist takes over in January, the budget proposals will likely be re-evaluated, agency officials have said.

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