Pinellas mental health court offers defendants a second chance

A 24-year-old Tampa man had an announcement for the Pinellas County Justice Center courtroom on a Friday in July:

“My goal is to become a stable, contributing part of the community,” he said. “I want to get my own apartment, get back into school, finish my degree and take my place in the world.”

Last August, he was charged with criminal mischief and attempted burglary in Pinellas County. In lieu of going to trial, he was offered a chance to enter a court diversion program. He agreed, and now, one year later, he’s living in a chronic mental illness treatment center. He’s sober, respectful of staff and attending all his psychiatry appointments — sessions he scheduled himself, according to his in-court testimony.

“All of us are really proud of you,” Pinellas-Pasco Judge Philip Federico said.

The Pinellas mental health court launched last October for moments like this. Under the terms of the man’s diversion agreement, upon completion of the mental health program, the charges will be wiped from his records.

The court seeks to reduce the number of people with mental illness entering the criminal justice system and, in turn, improve the quality of their lives, according to the 6th Judicial Circuit’s website. Through participating in the mental health program, defendants go through an extensive treatment path lasting up to 39 months, according to the court’s handbook.

“They’ve got to decide where they’re headed in this journey, and then we can try to help them in any way we can to get there,” Federico told the Tampa Bay Times.

A mental health court for Pinellas County was just an idea drafted by defense attorney Lucas Fleming when he first approached Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bruce Bartlett. Fleming had experience with the Hillsborough mental health court, which launched in 2017. He said he got the sense that he was among the first to advocate for bringing the therapeutic court model to Pinellas.

With the help of public defender Ashley Roura, Fleming and Bartlett created a committee to get the court off the ground. After about 1½ years of planning and securing funds, the new court was a go. The mental health court joined the ranks of what authorities call “problem-solving programs,” such as veterans court and drug court — all models of criminal justice that dive into the source of the issues that might be causing defendants to commit crimes, the 6th Judicial Circuit website says.

As of December 2022, the Pinellas program is one of 35 mental health courts operating in Florida, according to the Office of the State Courts Administrators.

A federal grant provided Pinellas County $550,000 for the mental health program. The funds are enough to cover 40 defendants per year for a two-year period. So far, the court has seen 47 referrals, with 24 of those defendants accepted into the program and in various stages of the process. So far, only one person was discharged for being unable to complete the program, operations manager Nick Bridenback said.

The court partners with Directions for Living, a mental health services provider in Clearwater, to assess defendants and get them the therapy or medication they need. Then, defendants are directed to a residential treatment center, if appropriate.

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All defendants in Pinellas mental health court must have committed non-violent crimes. They also must be deemed legally competent by a psychologist on staff, and have proof of a previous mental health diagnosis.

Many of the current defendants are homeless, according to Federico. Almost all lack the knowledge to properly navigate the criminal justice system.

“What bus do I have to take to get here? How do I get my ID?” Federico listed as examples of defendants’ questions. “All of those little things that we take for granted.”

One barrier the court has faced is the defendants’ lack of trust. Previous encounters with the criminal justice system “have not been positive,” according to Bridenback. He said it’s up to the judge, prosecutor and defense attorney to prove that this time will be different.

For attorneys with decadeslong careers like public defender Roura and prosecutor Richard Ripplinger, the mental health program is unlike the other courts they’ve worked in. Rippingler is there to protect any victims involved and the rest of the community, he said. But he also works with the defense attorney and the judge to meet the defendants’ needs, too.

“It’s more of a community,” Roura said. “You’re still advocating for the rights of your client, but at the same time, everyone’s winning if your client is succeeding.”

Other counties in the area with more established mental health courts show promising results. In a similar mental health diversion program for misdemeanors in Miami-Dade, recidivism reduced from roughly 75% to 20% annually as of 2021, according to a report from the 11th Judicial Circuit. The court sees around 300 referrals per year.

Looking to the future, Fleming hopes that the court’s ongoing, successful track record might rake in more funds. He’s optimistic that the mental health court model will have reverberations reaching other divisions, making courts more mindful of all the factors that put people in the criminal justice system.

Back in court, Federico congratulated the young man appearing before him on “phasing up,” or getting to the next stage in the mental health program plan. The courtroom erupted into cheers. The defendant’s mom was there to witness the moment. His next goal, he said, is getting back to working toward an engineering degree at a Florida university.

“I think you’re well on your way,” Federico said.

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