Every year, Florida courts send hundreds of people accused of minor crimes to high security mental hospitals. Forced to live among violent offenders, they get medication to stabilize their symptoms, but little therapy or long-term support to help them manage their illnesses, report the Sarasota Herald-Tribune and Tampa Bay Times. Instead, the hospitals run patients through drills, day after day, to teach them how a courtroom works. “What is a bailiff?” “What is the role of a judge?” The goal is to get them deemed legally competent so they can return to face their charges. The average cost to Florida taxpayers is $53,000 per defendant.
The moment a patient is declared mentally fit, the state cuts off care and sends them back to jail. Without medication, some fall apart so quickly they are hallucinating again before their first court hearing and must be returned to a mental hospital to start the process all over again. By the time many make it to court, they are told they've already spent more time locked away than their crime deserves. “It's the definition of insanity,” said George Sheldon, who oversaw Florida's state-funded mental hospitals from 2008 to 2010. “The majority of defendants are picked up for crimes that escalate from a misdemeanor. They get released, then they go off their meds and rotate right back into the system.” Every year, Florida spends at least $50 million restoring the competency of defendants whose nonviolent crimes are so minor they never spend a day in prison. Many spend more time confined to mental hospitals being prepared for court than they would have spent in jail had they simply pleaded guilty to their charges. One patient is still being held eight months after he was caught sleeping in the back of someone's car. He had taken 97 cents from the dashboard. Another has been committed to a state hospital since July after shoplifting three shirts from a store.