KRWG News: Judge Steven Leifman Discusses Mental Health Issues In The Criminal Justice System


Published on Sep 16, 2016

The Domenici Public Policy Conference brings policy leaders together to discuss different issues that are important to New Mexico and the Nation. This year’s conference had a focus on mental health reform.

Today, We hear from a Florida Judge who is working on mental health issues in the judicial system.

Judge Steven Leifman is the Associate Administrative Judge of the Miami-Dade County Court Criminal Division. He says mental health issues are prominent in courtrooms around the country.

“Unfortunately Judges end up seeing more people in a day with serious mental illnesses in the criminal division than most psychiatrists see in a month,” Leifman said. “And that’s a very sad reality on the state of affairs on this country, and every community in the United States is struggling with this issue. So, about 16 years ago we started a major diversion program in Miami-Dade County to see if we can keep people with serious mental illnesses from coming into the criminal system. And then when they did hit the criminal justice system how we could divert them into services so we could stop them from repeating through the system.”

Leifman says the program has been a success.

“We reduced our recidivism in Miami-Dade County of our misdemeanor population from 72% to 20%,” Leifman said. “It worked so well we expanded our program into our felony division. And our felony recidivism rate for people that complete the program, which is about 70% completed, is only 6%. That program alone has saved my county almost 40 years of jail bed days.”

Leifman says the program saves money, and is a better way of dealing with mental health in the courts.

“We were actually contributing to a public safety problem,” Leifman said. “Because people were coming out of our system still with serious illnesses, not in recovery, and they were ending up back in the system. So, if you approach this using a disease or a population health model, as opposed to a criminal justice model you get people services, they’re not going to reoffend, they’re not going to come back in the system. You’re actually going to substantially improve your public safety.”

Leifman now works with a National Organization, the Judge’s Leadership initiative.

“Where we are going around the country teaching judges how to identify people in court who may be showing signs of symptoms,” Leifman said. “So, that we don’t escalate a situation in court. And then teach judges what different options there are for them to offer people who have these mental health issues. And so judges can be a big part of it. The other thing that we can do, is that we have this wonderful moral authority, and we can bring people together in a community that normally may not be talking to each other about these issues.”

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