By one estimate, 9 percent of Miami residents suffer from a mental illness, a rate about three times higher than the national average. It also has a large homeless population, most of whom have mental health issues and substance abuse problems. Yet, Miami-Dade County has emerged as a national model for how a county can develop strategies to combat the criminalization of mental illness, reports Governing magazine. What makes Miami different, says Dan Abreu of Policy Research Associates, a think tank focused on behavioral and mental health issues, is that “they are really moving toward having a continuum of services.” That's due largely to the efforts of Judge Steve Leifman. Since joining the bench in 1996, he has pushed police to adopt a pre-arrest diversion program that keeps thousands of people picked up by police agencies across the county out of jail. He's created a model postbooking diversion program that offers people charged with misdemeanors and lesser felonies an opportunity to get out of jail and go into treatment.
Leifman has developed a network of case managers and peer specialists to support people with mental illnesses who enter the diversion program, and worked with researchers, corporations and pharmaceutical companies to develop innovative ways to identify and address the needs of the neediest members of this population. He also has been a leader of an effort that has brought the legislature to the brink of passing the first major overhaul of the laws governing treatment of the mentally ill in 41 years, while also convincing the state and county to sign over a 180,000-square-foot facility to serve as a comprehensive treatment center.