The Honorable Steven Leifman, county court judge with the Criminal Division of the Eleventh Judicial Circuit of Florida, was named among the Public Officials of the Year 2016 by GOVERNING Magazine for his pioneering work with the Eleventh Circuit's Criminal Mental Health Project.
"Through our project, we are able to offer hope and recovery to so many people in our community who live and often suffer with a serious mental illness. Without this project, many would continue a lifetime of homelessness and incarceration," Judge Leifman said.
"While I am very humbled to receive this the recognition, I am most grateful for the attention it brings to the tragedy of using the criminal justice system as the de facto mental health system. I am incredibly appreciative of the phenomenal support I receive from colleagues that has allowed me to pursue this issue and to the amazing staff that has made the 11th Judicial Circuit Criminal Mental Health Project an overwhelming success and a national model," he added.
Every year since 1994, GOVERNING has honored individual state and local government officials for outstanding accomplishment by naming them Public Officials of the Year. Elected, appointed and career officials from any branch of state or local government are eligible. Our readers are invited to nominate individuals who have had a notable positive impact on their department or agency, community or state.
From GOVERNING Magazine:
Steven Leifman 2016 HONOREE
County Judge, Miami-Dade County, Fla.
In 1973, Steve Leifman was a college student interning for a Florida state senator in Tallahassee. One day, the office received a letter from a constituent claiming that her son was being held at a state psychiatric hospital over the family’s objections. Leifman was sent to investigate. When he arrived at the hospital, staff showed him to the patient’s room. There Leifman found the young man shackled to a bed. He was enormously overweight: Hospital staff had been injecting him with Thorazine, an antipsychotic medication that causes weight gain. Thorazine can work as a treatment for psychosis. But the young man strapped to the bed was not psychotic. He was autistic.
Leifman was deeply shaken. Then a volunteer took him down to the basement to see where the truly psychotic patients were held. Eventually they reached a metal cage where a guard was hosing feces off several naked men. “It was one of those experiences that you never forget,” says Leifman. “The only thing I could think of while I was standing there was, ‘We treat animals better in the zoo.’”
Florida eventually closed most of its state mental hospitals. But when Leifman, a former public defender, became a county court judge in 1995, he realized where most of the patients had gone -- to jails and prisons. In Miami-Dade County, which has the highest rate of mental illness in the entire nation, one-fifth of all the arrests involved people with mental problems. The Miami-Dade jail was the biggest psychiatric care facility in the state of Florida. Every few months saw incidences in which area law enforcement officers shot and killed someone who was suffering from mental illness.
Leifman set out to change this. He developed a “crisis intervention training” program to teach police how to handle people with mental disease. Working with area law enforcement, mental health providers and elected leaders, he created the Criminal Mental Health Project (CMHP), which diverts the mentally ill out of the criminal justice system and into community treatment. In 2004, Leifman and his allies persuaded Miami-Dade County voters to approve a $21 million bond issue to convert a shuttered jail into a mental health-care facility. This year, the county and Jackson Memorial Hospital approved another $20 million for a new state-of-the-art facility, with construction scheduled to start in 2017. In June, Gov. Rick Scott signed a law that requires communities across the state to develop CMHP-style models of coordinated care.
Many communities now try to keep people with mental illnesses out of the criminal justice system. What makes the Miami model distinctive, The New England Journal of Medicine noted in an article hailing Miami as a national model, is “a comprehensive, coordinated response to what’s recognized as a shared community problem.” Leifman is now working with the American Psychiatric Association Foundation, the National Association of Counties and the Council of State Governments on a new initiative, Stepping Up, which seeks to bring the Miami model to places across the country.
“The most exciting part of all of this is that people are recovering; they are getting their lives back,” says the 57-year-old Leifman. “Communities are saving money and improving public safety in the process. It doesn’t get better than that.”
-- By John Buntin
See the rest of the 2016 Public Officials of the Year.