Irving “Babycakes” Howard has spent thousands of nights. He’s been booked 244 times, costing taxpayers close to $300,000. The sheriff’s office says the typical cost of $80 per night to house an inmate got Babycakes to that staggering total.
How does something like this happen?
NBC2 Investigator Rachel Polansky spoke with a criminal defense attorney, a licensed mental health counselor, Howard himself and many people that live in the Dunbar area near MLK Boulevard.
Taxpayers spent nearly $300,000 for one man’s thousands of nights in jail.
It’s an Edward R. Murrow Award-winning story the NBC2 Investigators exposed one year ago about a broken system that sends people who need mental health or substance abuse services to jail instead of getting them treatment.
We found out these issues have only gotten worse, but there is a push to stop it.
In Lee County, 18.5 percent of residents have a diagnosable mental illness and 10.5 percent, or 81,094 people, have a serious mental illness. However, Florida ranks 49th in per capita spending on mental health care, and Lee County is among the worst-funded counties.
Kathy Smith, a public defender for the 20th judicial circuit, said stories like Babycake’s aren’t unique or surprising specifically in Lee County.
“The options as we have it now our jail, emergency rooms, and crisis units, which are very expensive,” said Smith. There’s not enough treatment or housing for people living with mental illness. We can either fund the jail because that’s the alternative or we can repurpose that money and fund housing and treatment options,” said Smith. “We need to invest in treatment, we need to invest in housing, and we will have a safer community in the end.”
State and federal funding have not kept pace with what’s necessary to get the mentally ill the help they need. In August, Florida lost $20 million in federal grant dollars for substance abuse and mental health treatment. And SalusCare, the largest mental health and substance abuse treatment program in Southwest Florida, faced a $569,000 cut in state funding this year.
“If they don’t want the people out in the community disturbing the community, or committing crimes, we need to give them treatment. It’s not a crime to be mentally ill,” said Lee County Commissioner, Cecil Pendergrass. “We need to have more treatment facilities and housing, long-term housing for these residents when they transition back into the community.”