Imagine thinking that everyone else hears voices telling them to do different things. Imagine your family members all tell you that is what they hear too. Now imagine those voices have you do things to others and to yourself that land you in jail and in a mental health facility.

Fortunately, in the 6th Judicial circuit in Florida (serving the Tampa Bay area), clients with mental health issues can be referred to the Public Defender Office’s jail diversion program for the mentally ill.  That program has licensed Masters-level therapists, housing, medication and transportation for mentally ill clients with either felonies or misdemeanors. It is not a judge ordered program but one based on assistant public defenders or family member referrals. Since 2004, the program has successfully diverted over 6,000 clients. Many of the clients have been in and out of jails or prisons and had never received a mental health diagnosis or treatment. There has been a 92|PERCENT| success rate and due to that success, the program is accepted by the judiciary and the prosecutors.

Because of the manner in which it is funded through the Public Defender Office budget, there are no restrictions on sex offenders or arsonists. If the clients have medical issues, they can be referred to the Public Defenders Mobile Medical unit that serves the homeless and uninsured. The unit is a 37’ unit with a nurse practitioner, driver, case manager and volunteer nurses. No ID is required. The mobile medical unit also serves as a source of referrals to the Public Defender Chronic inebriate program which provides for medical detox and 6 months of case management with housing and medical included.

Our office strives to meet the actual needs of our clients by providing them the screening and treatment programs that they need. This work is very much woven into the fabric of our office culture. While our diversion program and our mobile medical unit doesn’t provide services for people exiting jail, our office takes the broad view and sees this advocacy as part of our mission to begin reentry work as soon as we are appointed to representation, or sometimes even as a proactive preventative measure for people in our community.