Homelessness

The Charlotte County Sheriff’s Office is planning a new way to divert people who need mental health or substance abuse treatment from involvement in the criminal justice system.

Sgt. Chris Baras spoke at the most recent Criminal Justice Behavioral Health Committee meeting about a program in Collier County, which Charlotte County officials plan to mimic. The program allows for involuntary outpatient commitment for patients in need of mental health treatment who are not willing to seek it voluntarily.

“A lot of this is going to be our homeless population,” Baras said. “They have mental health issues, substance abuse issues, and they get arrested for a misdemeanor, not a felony ... It’s typically the person that’s being arrested for like trespassing. Ultimately, the bottom line is this person has mental health issues, and instead of going through with the arrest procedures, the first thing is we want to get them out of jail and get them services as soon as possible.”

Kelly Decker, a contracted Charlotte Behavioral Health Care employee who works in the Charlotte County Sheriff’s Mental Health Unit, said other states have similar programs that have shown success similar to that of Mental Health Court or Drug Court.

“It’s not ideal to have somebody have involuntary treatment placed on them, but when they have that period of accountability, the drug screens and having to take medications and all of that, you see that change in the person and they develop insight and awareness, so there can be some great success even though it starts out as involuntary,” she said.

The program is still in the early planning stages, but the program it’s modeled after in Collier County includes certain criteria, such as that the person must be 18 years of age or older, have a mental illness, be unlikely to survive in the community without supervision, must have a history of noncompliance with treatment, and must have two involuntary mental health evaluations within the last 36 months or one act of violence toward others.

Baras said the process can begin with individuals in custody or by law enforcement officers diverting individuals before they even go to jail. Family members could also petition for the involuntary treatment through the courts.

Jail Capt. Melissa Turney said many aspects in the program are things CCSO already does but without a formal process.

“If we did identify somebody, (it’s) being able to say okay, maybe we shouldn’t have this person arrested for the eighth time for trespassing,” she said. “Maybe this is something that they qualify for, and we can do that immediately, so that they’re not in our setting, because obviously jail is not the appropriate place for an individual who is having a mental health crisis.”

Sarah Stanley, Chief Operating Officer of Charlotte Behavioral Health Care, said the outpatient commitment process would be an extension of the Baker Act Law.

“It provides a means to legally compel individuals with severe mental illness to participate in outpatient treatment (such as psychotropic medications, therapy, and case management services) after it has been established that the individual is a threat to themselves or others in the community (due to their mental illness) without treatment, and they are otherwise unable or unwilling to voluntarily accept treatment.”

Stanley said CBHC has done outpatient commitments on a limited basis in the past, and it has been successful. However, she noted funding could be a potential barrier to fully implementing an outpatient commitment program.

Representatives from both CBHC and the Sheriff’s Office planned to meet with the courts next to discuss the program.

Email: anne.easker@yoursun.com

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