Comprehensive Treatment Court for the mentally ill wins unanimous City Commission support

County Commission, three foundations, the Downtown Improvement District and The Salvation Army pledge support in effort to win state grant for three-year program

The City Commission listens to Judge Erika Quartermaine on May 16. News Leader photo
The City Commission listens to Judge Erika Quartermaine on May 16. News Leader photo

Editor’s note: This article was updated on May 20 with additional information about the amount of money the Downtown Improvement District board pledged to the Comprehensive Treatment Court.

On a unanimous vote this week, the Sarasota City Commission committed to approximately $442,000 over three years in an effort to help win a state grant for a proposed jail diversion program for the mentally ill.

Immediately after the action in support of the Comprehensive Treatment Court (CTC), the Commission Chambers at City Hall erupted in applause and cheers.

County Judge Erika Quartermaine of the 12th Judicial Circuit pointed out to the board members on May 16 that the city’s Downtown Improvement District already had offered to cover 10 percent of the city funding she had requested, and The Salvation Army has pledged $20,000 each year. Therefore, she said, the city’s ultimate contribution would be reduced accordingly.

John Moran, the operations manager of the DID, told the News Leader that the advisory board pledged $44,166.67 over three years, and the money was not conditioned on the city’s pledging the remaining $397,500. “The DID board did so at its May 11 Special Board Meeting,” he wrote in an email, adding that that session “set the record of [the DID’s] shortest meeting in history at 10 minutes with Judge Quartermaine’s Comprehensive Treatment Court as the only item on the agenda.”

On April 27, Quartermaine won unanimous support of the Sarasota County Commission for the same $441,667 contribution over three years that she had sought from the city. Additionally, the Gulf Coast Community Foundation, the Community Foundation of Sarasota County and the Charles & Margery Barancik Foundation have committed to supporting the first three years of the program, Quartermaine told the City Commission on May 16.

In an April 28 telephone interview with The Sarasota News Leader, Kelly Romanoff, a spokesperson for the Barancik Foundation, said that nonprofit’s board had agreed to provide a grant of $147,000 over three years. The Gulf Coast Community Foundation commitment of $40,000 was predicated upon the city’s support, Quartermaine said in her presentation to the County Commission.

Judge Erika Quartermaine. Image from the 12th Judicial Circuit website
Judge Erika Quartermaine. Image from the 12th Judicial Circuit website

Although Quartermaine has no guarantee that the program can win the $400,000 State of Florida Criminal Justice Mental Health and Substance Abuse Reinvestment Grant she is seeking, she told the City Commission, she has been working with a technical advisor at the University of South Florida who “has indicated that we would be very competitive” in the process.

City Manager Tom Barwin said he believes the program has the potential to lead to “considerable savings through reducing the jail population,” adding that it costs at least $75 per day to keep someone in jail.

Quartermaine explained that the Miami-Dade County program on which her proposal is modeled is achieving a 45-day turnover rate, with people having received sufficient assistance to be able to live on their own. “I believe we can get it to three months on average [in Sarasota County],” she added, with a minimum of 100 people helped each year.

“The real work is going to come when that first person comes through the door,” Quartermaine said, noting that she knows of one mentally ill individual who has been convicted of misdemeanors 127 times. “I believe it’s going to really help the homeless situation,” Quartermaine added of the CTC, “and I think we can do it in the most compassionate, humane and cost-effective way …”

With Centerstone — formerly Manatee Glens — serving as the treatment facility, the goal is to create a case plan for each non-violent mentally ill person who has been arrested on a misdemeanor offense. The assistance will include any necessary medication, she explained to the County Commission last month. After a person has been stabilized, a long-term plan will be established, with the provision of housing or the return of the person to a family setting. The hope is that the individual eventually will be able to find employment following treatment, she pointed out. After a person completes the program, the charges will be dropped.

“The intent is to reduce recidivism,” Quartermaine pointed out during the City Commission meeting, noting that the jail “is not a mental health institution.”

In Miami-Dade County, she said, the recidivism rate for arrestees with serious mental illnesses has dropped from 76 percent to 20 percent. “After three years, we hope to be as successful [as the Miami-Dade program].”

Quartermaine pointed out that statistics show 75 to 95 percent of the people who would be helped are homeless, though Commissioner Liz Alpert noted that the CTC will assist those who are not, as well.

Judge Quartermaine presented two charts to show how the CTC would work. Image courtesy City of Sarasota
Judge Quartermaine presented two charts to show how the CTC would work. Image courtesy City of Sarasota
This chart shows the continuation of the CTC process. Image courtesy City of Sarasota
This chart shows the continuation of the CTC process. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

More details

Quartermaine explained that representatives of the State Attorney’s and Public Defender’s offices; Sarasota County Sheriff Tom Knight; Chief Judge Charles Williams of the 12th Judicial Circuit; Walt Smith, the administrator of the courts; and Mary Ruiz, the CEO of Centerstone, signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) outlining how the program will function.

An important part of the plan, she continued, will be the gathering of “a lot of very comprehensive statistics,” with the hope that she and the other signatories of the MOU can prove to government leaders that the CTC “is successful and that it is saving money.”

Noting that statistics already recorded have shown the majority of people who would be eligible for the program are in the city limits, Quartermaine told the commission, “I thought it was important to have the City of Sarasota at least buy in from the beginning.”

City Commissioner Suzanne Atwell. File photo
City Commissioner Suzanne Atwell. File photo

“How could we not do this,” Vice Mayor Suzanne Atwell said, adding that the city’s participation also marks “building a relationship again with the county.”

While the City Commission has been focused on the Housing First approach in handling homelessness in the community, the County Commission has remained firm on its stance that a come-as-you-are shelter should be established. Following the two boards’ most recent meeting on the issue — in November 2015 — the potential for a renewed partnership collapsed after the Gulf Coast Community Foundation pulled back from an offer to facilitate collaboration between the boards, citing concern that their contrasting views left little room for compromise.

Mayor Willie Shaw talked Monday night of his involvement in early discussions about the CTC, saying, “I’m most happy to see its reach [go] a bit further [than the city limits],” including the involvement of Centerstone, which is located in Bradenton.

In seconding City Commissioner Shelli Freeland Eddie’s motion to approve participation in the CTC, City Commissioner Susan Chapman told Quartermaine she also was pleased to see the community collaboration “toward permanent supportive housing. … I think we know that that is the only program that has any efficacy, and I’m so glad that we’re finally working toward that goal.”

Public support

When Shaw opened the floor for public comments Monday night, more than a dozen people urged the board to contribute to the program.

Aron Owens addresses the City Commission on May 16. News Leader photo
Aron Owens addresses the City Commission on May 16. News Leader photo

Aron Owens talked of losing her older brother to a heroin overdose — a result of his trying to cope with mental illness. “He circulated through the Sarasota County courthouse more times than I can count,” she told the commissioners. “The mentally ill in our community are people just like you,” she continued, adding that she finds it disturbing when she sees members of the public refuse to make eye contact with homeless people in downtown Sarasota.

Peter Fanning, president emeritus and chair of the committee on homelessness of the Downtown Sarasota Condominium Association, also urged the commissioners — on behalf of that group — to support the program.

Joan Geyer, representing Vincent House, told the board that that nonprofit organization is building an 8,500-square-foot training center in Sarasota — Vincent Academy — and it has just received news that it has been awarded a $100,000 Selby Foundation grant for a commercial kitchen that is part of its plan. If the commission approved the CTC, Geyer said, Vincent Academy would accept as many of the people as possible who received help through the CTC, so they could learn skills to gain employment.

Vincent House’s mission is to assist people recovering from mental illness and other disabilities “in their effort to improve social and vocational skills, and become employed in the community,” its website says. The organization is based in Pinellas Park.