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House advances pilot program to treat mental health versus jail

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A House committee voted unanimously Tuesday in favor of a bill to begin the Forensic Hospital Diversion Pilot Program in the Panhandle’s Okaloosa County.

Rep. Mel Ponder, who sponsored HB 1051, introduced the measure to the House Children, Families and Seniors Subcommittee. The bill intends to alleviate overcrowding in the state’s prison corrections system with a significant percentage of individuals with mental health needs

Often, those individuals go ignored while incarcerated.

“We believe those inmates would be better served with treatment rather than jail time,” Ponder said. “This is an extremely important bill and while it calls for no funding comes with it, it does start the process.”

Ponder cited fully one-quarter of Okaloosa’s inmates had some sort of mental health need, with the county ranking first in the region for such an issue.

“When I heard we were the No. 1 county in northwest Florida, it just lit my fire even more,” he said.

One constituent approached the podium, telling committee members: “Nationally, much has been done about this problem, but in Florida, we rank 49th in the nation. Our jails have been the depository for our residents with mental health problems.”

Treating mental health problems lowers recidivism and jail overcrowding, Ponder said, with many needing such services coming from veteran and juvenile population segments.

According to the constituent, it costs Okaloosa County $50 a day to house an inmate and $120 a day, meanwhile, mental health treatment is $17 a day, on average.

Committee member Rep. Barry Russell commended Ponder for the bill.

“It’s very timely and cost effective,” Russell said. “I commend you for the work out into this and think it is deserving of our attention.”

Tuesday was the final meeting of the subcommittee in the Legislative Session.

Les Neuhaus is an all-platform journalist, with specialties in print reporting and writing. In addition to Florida Politics, he freelances as a general-assignment and breaking-news reporter for most of the major national daily newspapers, along with a host of digital media, and a human rights group. A former foreign correspondent across Africa and Asia, including the Middle East, Les covered a multitude of high-profile events in chronically-unstable nations. He’s a veteran of the U.S. Air Force, in which he served as a Security Policeman, and graduated from the University of Tennessee with a B.A. in political science. He is a proud father to his daughter and enjoys spending time with his family.

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