Victims, counselors, lawmakers push for funding, mental health court
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - A mental health counselor is joining a crime victim and defense lawyer in asking for changes to the legal system that releases people found mentally incompetent for trial back on the streets of Jacksonville.
Deandre Snelling, 31, had an extensive criminal history when he was arrested last year, accused of attacking Sherri Jones as she was walking her dog on the Northside.
Jones said had Snelling not been sent for mental health evaluation, he likely would have been held for prosecution and not been free when he was accused of attempted sexual battery and burglary about a month later. Because his latest arrest is a felony, he is now in the custody of the Florida Department of Children and Families.
Gloria Hanania, a counselor with River Region Human Services, said Florida is near the bottom nationally for mental health funding, people like this end with with repeated visits to jail rather than a treatment program.
"It's very frustrating because ... it's a revolving door," Hanania said. "The jails are not set up for it, either way. Even if they had intentions of trying to assist, which I know a lot of the jails do, that's not what a jail is set up to do."
Defense attorney Gene Nichols said that many people coming through the jail system using drugs and alcohol often do it because of underlying mental health issues. But he sees potential for a solution.
"There absolutely needs to be a mental health court," Nichols said. "A mental health court within the court system would allow for the opportunity for churches to get involved, for prosecutors to get involved, for a diversion program that will help people not only (with) drugs that they are dealing with, but also help people with mental health issues that are underlined almost everything that happens."
But Nichols said that without state funding for mental health, people will continue to be found not competent for prosecution and, after a short evaluation period, released back into the community, where they could be a future threat to the public.
"If there was money in place, then we could have the amount of people that we need to assess these folks and get them help immediately, we would not see anywhere near the amount of problems that we do today," Nichols said.
Gov. RIck Scott has proposed a $19 million funding increase for mental health services. A bill before the Legislature last year proposed mental health courts, but it did not pass. Mental health providers are hopeful a similar bill this year will become law.
"Our goal is to work long term with these individuals. You want to get them back at a level that is functioning for them, and where they can be productive in their daily life," Hanania said.
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