State Rep. Dennis Baxley speaks at Florida Partners in Crisis quarterly meeting.State Rep. Dennis Baxley’s advice: Don’t bring lawmakers or legislative staff a “hairball” when advocating for legislative reform in mental health and criminal justice.
“It’s big and ugly and I don’t know what to do with it – I don’t want to touch it,” the Ocala Republican said as he clomped side to side toward a table with his arms wide around the imaginary wad.

Baxley said people who want changes in the system need to bring them to the table in manageable pieces. And he also warned about the real and political dangers of legislation that might release restrictions on people with mental illness who have been convicted of crimes.

“Just one thing goes wrong…,” he said.

Baxley spoke Tuesday, Nov. 19, to about 50 people attending the quarterly meeting in Orlando of Florida Partners in Crisis, a Merritt Island-based nonprofit that supports education and effective use of tax dollars to address issues at the crossroads of criminal justice and mental health.

Among those attending from the Space Coast: 2-1-1 Brevard communications manager Belinda Stewart, Palm Bay Police Capt. Tim Zander, Daina Gold of ValueOptions and Julie Costopoulos, assistant professor of psychology at Florida Institute of Technology.

2-1-1 Brevard receives calls from inmates just out of state prisons, many of whom don’t have more than the $50 and bus ticket they were issued at release. They struggle to find housing, as well as work, and as many as 20 percent of all Florida inmates struggle with documented mental illness.

Baxley is a self-described “ultra conservative” whose plain-spoken comments sometimes are controversial.

He also is a proponent of “Smart Justice” and has sponsored related bills, including one designed to reduce recidivism by removing barriers to employment when inmates re-enter society – specifically, by helping them get identification cards.

On Nov. 19, he encouraged the group to take action to make change for the good.

“Whatever you see wrong in government, it’s what’s wrong with us,” Baxley said.

“Get on the radar,” he said. “You are getting through to them. You’ve just got to get your blip bright enough.”