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PUBLIC OFFICIALS of the YEAR

Steven Leifman 2016 HONOREE

County Judge, Miami-Dade County, Fla.


(David Kidd)

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.