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Miami-Dade judge says new mental health treatment facility is a 'once in a lifetime opportunity'

Miami-Dade Judge Steve Leifman stands in a hallway near an open door
Daniel Rivero
/
WLRN
Miami-Dade Judge Steve Leifman inside the Miami Center for Mental Health and Recovery, which is currently under construction

Two years after WLRN partnered with the 70 Million podcast to tell the story of criminal justice reform in Miami, we take a look at the latest.

Two years ago, WLRN partnered with the podcast 70 Million to tell the story of how Miami-Dade Judge Steve Leifman has made Miami-Dade County a national leader in criminal justice reform. Through the advent of the the Miami-Dade Criminal Mental Health Project in 2000, Leifman has specifically worked to reform the way people with mental health disorders are treated inside the criminal justice system.

In a follow-up episode of the podcast, we check in with Judge Leifman to learn more about how the project is going.

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He took us on a tour of, what he says is, a first-in-the-nation facility being built in Allapattah and specializing in the treatment of people with mental illnesses and substance abuse issues.

Listen to the first episode here, and listen to the latest update episode below:

Listen to the podcast episode here.

Once it's done, the facility will include 208 beds with the opportunity to voluntarily stay for up to a year. It will include a culinary jobs training program; full primary healthcare and dental care; psychiatric services; a full indoor basketball gym, and a library.

“The idea is if we make it really nice, maybe they'll want to stay,” Leifman said.

The intention is to help get treatment to what he calls “high utilizers” — the people who are repeatedly arrested for minor offenses, then released, then rearrested. Often, these same individuals have untreated mental health conditions and are experiencing homelessness.

The building will also include a mini-courtroom where any ongoing cases can be heard, as well as offices for prosecutors and defense attorneys.

MIAMI CENTER FOR MENTAL HEALTH AND RECOVERY interior.JPG
Daniel Rivero
Inside the Miami Center for Mental Health and Recovery facility, which is under construction.

“We don't have to transfer people back and forth,” said Leifman. “It makes security a lot better. You know, people don't understand how the system works. For inmates to come to court, they have to wake them up at 5:00, 6:00 in the morning to get them on a bus, to transfer them to our building, put them in holding cells for hours. They don't feed them. These are people with serious mental illnesses. They all have trauma issues. That’s the other thing we’ll have here, is trauma services.”

The building was once used to help people with mental illness regain competency before going before a judge in court, but has been shut down by the state of Florida for years. In the meantime, the building has been used for filming television shows and movies.

Leifman described finding scenes with fake blood on the walls of some rooms.

“The geniuses landed a helicopter on the roof and damaged our roof,” he said.

But now, the building is being leased by the state of Florida for one dollar a year, and work crews are renovating the facility around the clock. Judge Leifman said he expects an influx of coronavirus relief money could help launch the facility into the real world. He estimates it should be opened in March 2022.

“It gives us a once in a lifetime opportunity to tackle our homeless problem here and to spend our dollars more efficiently and, more importantly, give people an opportunity to recover that they never had before,” Leifman said.

The coronavirus pandemic has also impacted other efforts at criminal justice reform in South Florida. Justin Volpe, a peer specialist with the Miami-Dade Criminal Mental Health Project, told WLRN that the shift to video conferencing court hearings has not been easy for many people in the program.

“People that were doing well were receptive. People that aren't doing well, now it's even harder to get a hold of them,” he said.

As courts have slowly reopened and gone back to in-person, reverting to the old ways has not always been easy. WLRN rode along with Volpe as he visited the home of someone in the Criminal Mental Health Project who had only been to court hearings on Zoom, and needed assistance making it to an in-person court hearing. Volpe said he would schedule a Lyft to take the person to court the following day.

“We're kind of getting people that we've never met or have been physically in front of the judge, in front of the judge. Just to show that you do have an open criminal case and even if you're doing good — just so that they know the severity of it,” said Volpe. “Because I think you can lose context, too, if you're not well.”

Other reform efforts explored in the episode include the Miami-Dade Threat Assessment Section that was created in the wake of the 2018 school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, which left 17 dead; and a new program that staffs the 911 call center in the city of Miami with social workers instead of police officers.

Building synergy between law enforcement and treatment providers is the best way to move forward with criminal justice reform for people with mental health issues, said Habsi Kaba, who coordinates police training for the Criminal Mental Health Project.

“The answer is not to give it to law enforcement,” she said. “The answer is — we need each other, we can’t do it without each other, so let’s make a plan.”