Fred Grimm

Fred Grimm: Broward’s mentally ill defendants lost in a Kafka-like court system


Travis Demarco Ray acts crazy. He talks crazy. Only thing crazier than Travis Ray would be a criminal justice system that pretended otherwise.

Ray, 39, was arrested last year and charged with simple battery after striking a woman outside a 7-Eleven in Wilton Manors. It was apparent that he was too out-of-it to stand trial. Psychiatric treatment was ordered to get Travis’s muddled mind stable enough to face trial.

In August, nearly a year after his arrest, he was brought into Broward County Court for a status hearing, so Judge Kal Evans could decide whether Ray, after all these months, had finally reached the mental competence threshold necessary to face a criminal trial.

This is one of the more peculiar and costly obsessions of Florida’s criminal justice system. Miami-Dade County Judge Steve Leifman, who chairs the Florida Supreme Court Task Force on Substance Abuse and Mental Health Issues, told the Florida House Judiciary Committee last winter that the state spent a third of its entire mental health budget — about $200 million to $210 million a year — trying to get about 2,500 mentally ill criminal defendants stable enough to stand trial.

That’s more than any other state. That’s also devouring a Florida mental health budget that allocates less per capita than any other state except for Idaho. Yet, after all that expenditure, Leifman testified, 70 percent of the defendants who’ve had their competency restored will have the charges dropped, be sentenced to time served or get probation.

If Travis Ray had been arrested in Miami-Dade County, he likely would have been diverted into a treatment program, avoiding this mad farce. But as Broward Public Defender Howard Finkelstein has complained, it’s not the same in Broward, though the county was once a national leader in diverting the mentally ill out of the criminal justice system.

Ray demonstrated his mental state pretty clearly at his hearing. He went into a psychotic rage. He threatened Judge Evans: “Someone [going to] put a bullet in your head for playing me like that.”

So the judge filed a criminal complaint. Travis Ray,who walked into the courtroom facing a misdemeanor, did what crazy people do and walked out with a felony charge — which sent Howard Finkelstein into his own rage.

He fired off a letter to Broward Circuit Chief Judge Peter Weinstein demanding training for judges and courtroom personnel “regarding the manifestations of mental illness.” He reminded Weinstein how courtroom bailiffs were videotaped last year dragging a screaming mentally ill woman through the courthouse hallways by her handcuffs. (Weinstein hasn’t answered.)

Travis Ray — whose mental condition, Finkelstein said, “is not even close, he’s completely whacked” — has now been tossed into this Kafkaesque cycle. “Everyone knows this case is not going anywhere,” Finkelstein said. “He’ll be committed. They’ll load him up with drugs in an attempt to get him competent. Eventually, they’ll dismiss the charges.”

He said, “Mentally ill defendants are like Zen masters compared to the people running this system.”