John Beraglia

John Beraglia, seen in a 2001 police photo, bounced among South Florida State Hospital, the streets and jail over a 20-year period, before dying in law enforcement custody.

Being mentally ill is not a crime, but it can get you arrested. It can get you thrown in jail and keep you confined for months in a terrifying place that does nothing to improve your mental health. Once released, unless you're one of the lucky ones, you're likely to repeat that pattern again and again.

In South Florida in the 21st century, it shouldn't be this way. Things were supposed to be so much better by now.

There was a time, of course, when things were so much worse. Not all that long ago, mental institutions in Florida and around the United States were snake pits of abuse, neglect and wasted lives. That changed with the deinstitutionalization movement of the latter 20th century, which moved most of the mentally ill out of institutions and into the community, where they were supposed to find an array of community-based mental health services.

It was to be the new age of mental health treatment: humane, non-restrictive and, thanks to modern drugs, effective. Reformers had visions of the mentally ill, even those with severe and persistent conditions, living and working in the community as fully productive members of society.

The reformers have had some success, to be sure. In Broward County and elsewhere, many of the mentally ill are better off today than they were in the institutions of yesteryear.

Despite systemic problems, much is being accomplished by scores of dedicated people from the Florida Department of Children & Families, various mental health care providers, Broward County Circuit Court and the Public Defender's Office, and specially trained law enforcement officers from agencies like the Broward Sheriff's Office and the Fort Lauderdale Police Department. They have done their best to make the most of a poorly funded and fragmentary system.

But far too many of the mentally ill are not being served, and have become frequent inmates at the Broward County Jail -- the largest "mental institution" in the county.

Yes, you heard that right. And it's not unusual. The Los Angeles County Jail has been called the largest "mental institution" in the United States. The problem is statewide and nationwide.

Why is this so? Why is the mental health system failing so many people, and failing to fulfill the promise of the deinstitutionalization movement? The answers should matter to every citizen, because the people who aren't being helped are the most seriously ill, the most in need of care -- and the most dangerous.

John Beraglia was a "frequent flier." The term is used by mental health experts and law enforcement personnel to describe people trapped in a vicious circle of mental wards, homelessness or cheap boarding houses -- and jail.

Over a 20-year period until his death in law enforcement custody in 2001, Beraglia was arrested more than 130 times. He spent well over a thousand days in jail, and was committed to South Florida State (Mental) Hospital numerous times.

Most of the charges against Beraglia were relatively minor: trespass, disorderly conduct, indecent exposure, open-container violations, petty theft. But these charges and others like them were repeated over and over again. People in law enforcement and the mental health system who got to know him said Beraglia's only real "crime" was his mental illness.

"John's no criminal; he's just real crazy" is how one law enforcement official put it.

There are thousands of John Beraglias in the mental health and criminal justice systems, not just in Broward County, but in Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties and throughout Florida and the United States. They are people, according to Howard Finkelstein, Broward's chief assistant public defender, "whose only crime was acting crazy."

But Beraglia was unusual in one important and tragic respect: his mental illness and recidivism eventually cost him his life.

On Sept. 16, 2001, Beraglia died in the mental health unit of the North Broward Detention Facility. Accounts differed as to what happened. The Broward Sheriff's Office said he died after beating his head repeatedly against the wall of his cell, where he was held under a suicide watch. Several other inmates said he was beaten to death by guards, but a grand jury investigation found no wrongdoing and closed the case.

It might have been more accurate, though, if the grand jurors had said that although no individual was guilty of Beraglia's death, the system certainly was.

"John Beraglia died because of our ignorance and our failures to understand how to deal with the mentally ill in the criminal justice system," Finkelstein says.

John deGroot, a mental health policy adviser for the BSO, blames the mental health system and the state's weak commitment to mental health. Says deGroot: "John Beraglia died for our sins."