New court could help keep mentally ill from jail

- A new mental health court is being established in Hillsborough County to keep jails from becoming repositories for the mentally ill.

Teen mom Violet Hinrichs pled guilty to trying to kill her baby, but was ultimately sent to a group home - not prison - after multiple mental evaluations.

After pleading guilty, she changed her mind, saying she did not understand what she was agreeing to. Soon after, she was found incompetent.

After a series of mental evaluations, delays, and more evaluations, Hinrichs was sent to a group home. A specialty court court have alleviated some of the headache associated with cases like hers.

Judge Greg Holder says the new system will mean positive changes for the Hillsborough County courthouse.

"Unfortunately our jails and our prisons have become a depository for those Floridians who have significant mental health issues and that's not justice," Judge Holder said.

Under the leadership and vision of Hillsborough Chief Judge Ronald Ficarrotta, a new mental health court will be launched.

Ficarrotta says it's the court of the future and hopes to have it open within a year's time.

Defendants with mental issues won't just be locked up, rather, they will be evaluated and get the treatment they need.

"We're talking about medication, we're talking about therapy, we're talking about individual and group meeting with psychiatrist to try to get to the root of the problem," said Judge Holder.

Hillsborough Public Defender Julie Holt said the new court will mean good things for her clients. She fought to get more money from lawmakers for mental health issues and got it: $300,000 dollars worth.

"We should have something in the criminal justice system that is a support net for individuals with mental health issues so that you can make them successful," said Holt.

In another courthouse success, Judge Holder's veterans treatment court has been nationally recognized after operating for less than two years.

"These people need treatment and, again, these funds will be the first step," Holder said.

His veteran's court was recently selected by the Department of Justice to be the model for other courts across the country.

Instead of locking people up for crimes, the vets will get treatment.

"More specifically, is it drug abuse. If its mental health issues, domestic violence, what are true triggers?" Holder said. "Our goal is to keep people out of prison not put people in prison."

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