Miami Center to Treat Mentally Ill Crime Suspects

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Miami skyline. Photo by Wyn Van Devanter via Flickr

Miami soon will open the nation’s first “forensic diversion” center for mentally ill people who otherwise would be destined for the criminal justice system, says Judge Steven Leifman, who has long advocated for defendants with mental problems. Leifman addressed the annual forum of the National Criminal Justice Association, which is meeting in Fort Worth, Texas. Leifman has described the facility as a 180,000-square-foot, stand-alone treatment center for the acutely mentally ill. It was funded by a $42 million county bond issue. Miami’s courts, which have been national leaders in improving the handling of crime suspects with mental problems, already have reduced the recidivism rate of such defendants from 72 percent to 20 percent by sending them promptly to medical units rather than jailing them, Leifman said.

Leifman, who has worked on issues of mental illness in his 18 years on the bench in Miami, say that so many sick people are jailed since the U.S. closed many mental hospitals decades ago that cities are being forced to choose between building schools or jails. Florida may have to build new prisons to accommodate the need to house mentally ill inmates, he said. (Leifman spoke on the same issue at a conference this month at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.) The justice association devoted the first morning of its conference to the problems involved in justice system handling of mentally ill defendants. In a discussion after Leifman spoke, experts discussed a process called “sequential intercepts” that attempts to insure that mentally ill suspects get immediate attention at various steps in the criminal justice process. Deputy Sheriff David Rhodes of Yavapai County, Ariz., urged justice leaders to “establish a sense of urgency” about improving the treatment of mentally ill people encountered  by law enforcement. He said that too often, jails release such suspects at odd hours with no prospect of getting medical help.

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