Chances appear good the Florida Legislature will award Okaloosa County a pilot program to assist the mentally ill outside of a jail environment.

Legislation to allow the Department of Children and Families to initiate a Forensic Hospital Diversion Pilot Program within the county has made it to the floor of the state Senate. The state House Health and Human Services Committee is the next scheduled stop for a companion bill. No significant opposition has arisen in either chamber, according to state Sen. George Gainer, R-Panama City, the sponsor of the Senate bill.

A primary reason, Gainer acknowledged, is that no state dollars are scheduled be set aside to fund the start of the Okaloosa program.

The goal of the diversion program is “to provide competency restoration and community-reintegration services” the Senate bill says. Those services would be offered in either a locked residential treatment facility or a “community-based” facility, it says.

Okaloosa County Commission Chairwoman Carolyn Ketchel has been the local champion for the diversion program.

“The pilot program is an opportunity for Okaloosa County to consider mental health treatment and wrap-around services without clogging up the jails and the court system,” Ketchel said.

Ketchel and others on a working group set up to advocate for the pilot program say they don't know what could be done with the pilot program if no state money comes attached to it. A DCF spokesman said the agency could not comment on pending legislation.

“The pilot program would set the stage for us to be able to provide a different level of services, a mechanism to provide services,” said working group member Stefan Vaughn, the administrator of the Okaloosa County Jail. “The first step is the one we’re in the process of, being designated a pilot program. We can use that as a mechanism to seek funding next year.”

Ketchel said her vision for the program includes securing a commitment to expand the existing facilities at the Okaloosa County Jail and including “mental health infrastructure” within that expansion. Her proposal would be for a 50-bed facility, with 30 beds for men and 20 for women, in close proximity to the Crestview jail.

A master plan for jail expansion is “still in the works,” Vaughn said.

“As we move forward we plan to incorporate some conceptual area that would to mental health in a crisis services unit,” he said. “You don’t want to bring non-criminal people to jail. We’re trying to design something that is dual purpose.”

Only a few diversion programs like the one envisioned in Okaloosa County are presently available in Florida, Ketchel said. That is one reason, she said, the state ranks 49th in the nation “in dealing with the mentally ill.”

“The largest mental health facility in Florida is the fourth floor of the Miami-Dade Jail,” she said.