Diversion Program for Mentally Ill Launched in Miami-Dade

By Kamika Dunlap on November 04, 2009 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Instead of mentally ill people awaiting trial behind bars or on the streets, Miami-Dade courts are taking a different approach.

The courts have rolled out a new pilot program for mentally ill people which allows prosecutors to drop felony charges if defendants finish one year of treatment.

The program is featured in the Miami Herald, which explains how it works.

Under the new diversion program, modeled on Miami-Dade's lauded drug court, it allows for felony charges to be dropped if defendants complete one year of aggressive treatment and monitoring and, in some cases, pay restitution.

Prosecutor Joanna Sandstrom, who oversees the program for the state attorney's office was interviewed in the Herald's article.

"The earlier someone is getting treatment, the more likely they'll succeed in treatment and not become one of these sad cases of chronically mentally ill people revolving in and out of jail,'' she said.

Florida's main jail houses 1,200 inmates taking prescribed drugs for mental illness, effectively making it the largest psychiatric facility in the state.

So here's the bonus behind the program: it not only helps to reduce jail time, but also to cut back on the money treating so many inmates costs the county.

According to the court, the county spends about $50 million a year on mental health care for inmates.

To be a part of the felony diversion program, defendants must be diagnosed with a mental illness such as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. Their criminal record must be short and not violent. They must be capable of understanding the basic legal process. 

If treatment goes according to plan, prosecutors then drop charges if defendants stay on their medications and out of trouble.

Other states including Utah, and Washington have already launched similar innovative court programs for mentally ill people charged with low-risk offenses.

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