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Scott's veto of mental health bill

Gov. Rick Scott's veto of a mental health bill this week not only surprised the Florida Legislature, which passed it unanimously, it contradicted the efforts of his own agency, the Department of Children and Families.

The bill, which would have shortened from five years to three years the time frame in which a judge would have to decide whether a person was mentally competent to stand trial, among other provisions, was rejected by Scott because reducing the time frame “could pose a serious public safety risk.”

What the veto letter didn't say was that Scott had been urged to veto the bill (SB 1420) by a lobbyist for the Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association,  Buddy Jacobs, who argued that an amendment to the measure made it unacceptable to prosecutors because of the reduced time frame.

Now that the bill (SB 1420) has been vetoed, DCF’s spokesman Alexis Lambert said the department was "concurring with the governor” that shortening the time frame “could pose a public safety risk.” She wouldn’t comment on the lack of DCF opposition to the bill during the legislative process and assertions by the bill’s sponsors and a Broward County Judge that the department was involved “since its inception.”

DCF “supported it 150 percent,” said Broward Probate Judge Mark Speiser, a key proponent of the bill, and a member of the Florida Supreme Court’s Task Force on Substance Abuse and Mental Health Issues in the Courts.

The proposed changes to the law are “absolutely, unequivocally” not a public safety risk, said Speiser, who helped create the first mental health court in the country (there are now more than 300), which deals with suspects deemed incompetent to stand trial and others found not guilty by reason of insanity.

Jacobs said the prosecuting attorneys association believed that shortening the time period was “a major change” to the existing bill and “there was no justification for it.”

The bill passed the House 117-0 and the Senate 37-0 and the language referring to the change in time frame was on the bill when it was filed in the Senate March 1. The bill was passed unanimously in three Senate committees and three House committees, including the Criminal Justice committees in both chambers.

The bill was amended March 20th, more than a month before the end of the session, to clarify that the time frame wouldn’t apply to suspects in major crimes, and lists 15 examples, from aggravated stalking to murder. The amendment also states that charges would be dismissed against a defendant considered incompetent to stand trial after three years “without prejudice,” which means that individuals could be charged later if they were eventually deemed responsible to stand trial.

Proponents of the bill point to research showing that the majority of people are found competent to stand trial within three years, so they are “languishing” in the system another two years, said sponsor Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood. “I’m tough on crime and that is not what this bill is about.”

People considered a danger to themselves and others “are not just let out on the street,” Speiser said. “They’re sent to a forensic facility.”

Competency restoration training and mental health services are provided in four state forensic facilities, which have a total of 1,108 beds (two facilities are state-operated and two are operated under contract with a private provider), according to the bill analysis. DCF served 2,531 adults who were committed for competency restoration services during fiscal year 2011-2012.

The bill would also have dealt with other mental health issues, including a provision to authorize forensic and civil facilities to continue the use of psychotherapeutic drugs for those receiving these medications in jail.

House sponsor Rep. Elaine Schwartz, D-Hollywood, said the governor’s staff had called for clarification last week but sponsors didn’t know the bill was being vetoed until late Wednesday afternoon, the last day for the measure to be signed. “We were all wondering, what’s going on with our bill?”