State settles legal battle over mentally ill inmates

Published: Thursday, February 1, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, February 1, 2007 at 12:02 a.m.

CLEARWATER — The new head of Florida's Department of Children & Families told a judge Wednesday his agency will stop fighting and start cooperating with advocates trying to end the practice of allowing mentally ill inmates to languish in jail in violation of state law.

"We are no longer going to be getting, hopefully, in these confrontational situations," DCF Secretary Bob Butterworth said after Wednesday's court hearing in Pinellas County.

The settlement approved on Wednesday ends all legal fighting in Pinellas County and in state appeals courts, clears former DCF Secretary Lucy Hadi of contempt charges and transfers a court-imposed $80,000 fine to a pilot program to treat the mentally ill in jail.

Butterworth also recapped a state plan that should get a backlog of more than 200 mentally ill inmates out of jail and into treatment facilities before June 30. He said the plan should help settle similar legal fights in other jurisdictions.

Hadi and her staff had clashed with judges around the state over the agency's failure to comply with a Florida law that says an inmate must be taken to a state hospital within 15 days of being found incompetent to stand trial. One Pinellas County inmate gouged out an eye and another in Miami-Dade County blinded himself while awaiting transfer, according to previous lawsuits.

The battle came to a head in Pinellas County when Circuit Court Judge Crockett Farnell, now retired, charged Hadi with contempt and threatened to throw her in jail.

Farnell removed himself from the case after telling reporters he would "love to" throw Hadi in jail for violating his court orders. Then-Gov. Jeb Bush accused Farnell of throwing a judicial "temper tantrum." DCF challenged Farnell's ability to objectively hear the case.

But on Wednesday, Butterworth praised Farnell as a driving force behind the settlement and also said Gov. Charlie Crist told him he wants peace among state agencies. Farnell observed the hearing from the jury box.

"Different breed of cat entirely," Farnell said of Butterworth and Crist. "I was taken aback by some of the things our past governor said. This is a great thing for the state of Florida and for people who have suffered."

The settlement was possible only because a joint legislative committee approved $16.6 million to create more than 350 new treatment beds around the state. Butterworth said he'll ask the Legislature to approve another $48 million to maintain them.

Butterworth also said he hopes a pilot program to begin treating some Pinellas inmates in jail before the 15-day deadline can be expanded statewide. On Wednesday, Circuit Judge Robert J. Morris Jr. allowed the $80,000 contempt fine to be used as seed money for the project.

"Hopefully, it's the start of a new era," Pinellas County Public Defender Bob Dillinger said. "We can get a lot more done cooperating than we can fighting each other. That was not the mentality of the Department of Children & Families before. If people want to butt heads, we'll butt heads, but it's not good for those who need help and it's not good for taxpayers."

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