Steve Leifman, a Circuit Court judge in Miami-Dade County, is the person most often credited for introducing the mental health diversion program concept to Florida.

“I would call Judge Leifman both a pioneer and a giant in the field of protecting and dramatically improving the treatment of mentally ill, justice-involved citizens,” said Okaloosa County Judge T. Patterson Maney. “He really has a national reputation.”

 

Much of what Leifman has done for South Florida, he’s accomplished without significant help from Tallahassee. As Okaloosa County officials seeking to fund a local mental health pilot program have learned, the state's executive and legislative branches have tended to shy away from appropriating funds for innovative mental health projects.

State Rep. Mel Ponder, R-Destin, introduced two bills this year in hopes of getting funding for the Okaloosa County pilot program, which was authorized by the Florida Legislature in 2016. Both efforts failed.

“Mental health-wise, Florida is one of the lowest funded systems in the state,” Ponder said. “I don't know why, the problem is a real one and needs to be funded appropriately.”

Ponder said it seems that what mental health money is appropriated by the Legislature goes out through traditional sources, and “for some reason adding something new becomes a point of conflict.”

But Okaloosa County stands out as disproportionately impacted by mental illness, with more cases than in any of the 18 other counties in North Florida, he said, and more needs to be done than what's happening now.

“In Okaloosa County we have to get something going, and we have to get it funded,” Ponder said, vowing next session to bring more passion to the fight.

Leifman has been advocating for the mentally ill most of his life. The story goes that his passion for those suffering began when he was a 17-year-old intern working in a state senator's office.

Visiting a psychiatric hospital to follow up on a report about a teen his age confined there, Leifman discovered the boy chained to a bed, and encountered other scenes so horrific it changed his entire outlook.

He said he sees supporting the mentally ill as the work of an entire community.

“There's no silver bullet here,” Leifman said. “You need to build and you need to restructure how the community identifies and treats people with these illnesses. What this is all about is putting all the pieces together to have what I believe would be considered a mentally healthy community.”

Leifman embarked nearly 20 years ago on what became known as the Criminal Mental Health Project, and has worked through it to help divert nonviolent defendants with serious mental illnesses out of the criminal justice system and into community-based treatment facilities where they would have access to support services.

Today, Miami-Dade — long renowned for having the largest population of mentally ill residents in the country — has initiated a full scale effort to cater to the many diverse needs of those suffering.

Leifman's “mentally healthy community” would feature a diversion program “designed on getting someone arrested on a misdemeanor or nonviolent felony out of jail as quickly as possible and into a very structured community mental health system that has a good continuity of care and tracks them to make sure they're taking their medication.”

Miami-Dade has established training for law enforcement officers to help them recognize mental illness and direct those caught up in a police-involved situation to a hospital rather than a jail, said Cindy Schwartz, the director of the Miami-Dade Jail Diversion Program.

There's also a “post bond diversion” in place to move those identified following an arrest as mentally ill and eligible for diversion, out of a jail cell and into treatment, Schwartz said.

“It's all about collaborating for the common good,” she said. “Diversion programs reduce the criminalization of people with mental illness.”

The Miami-Dade Forensic Alternative Center, opened in 2015, works to restore competency to mentally ill prisoners so that they can not only stand trial, but re-enter society and productively contribute to it.

The vast majority of the mentally ill people who get caught up in the legal system have committed misdemeanors or nonviolent crimes. Miami-Dade diversion programs have been so successful that the county was able to close one of its jails, which has resulted in a savings of $12 million.

This summer in Miami, construction is scheduled to begin on a 180,000-square-foot standalone treatment center for the acutely mentally ill. This facility, funded with a $42 million county bond issue, will work with the most severely impaired to provide them essential elements to get by in life.

When completed, the behavioral health facility will provide crisis stabilization, day activity, culinary education as part of teaching job skills, trauma services and primary health services including dental and eye clinics, a courtroom and space for athletic endeavor, Leifman said.

“The idea is to gently reintegrate people back into the community rather than just discharging them back into the street, which is basically what we do today,” Leifman said.

What most don't understand, Leifman said, is that recovery rates for people with mental illness are better than for people with heart disease or diabetes.

"You can recover. There's not a cure, but there’s definitely recovery," he said.