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Miami-Dade Attempts to Stop Jailing the Mentally Ill

About 70 percent of those in the Florida county’s jail are classified as undergoing treatment for a mental health condition, making it the largest psychiatric institution in the state. The jail spends $848,000 a day to “warehouse” the inmates.

A new treatment center near Wynwood, Fla., could be key to solving the mental health crisis plaguing Miami-Dade’s jail, which serves as the largest psychiatric institution in Florida.

About 3,100 people in Miami-Dade County jail, or 70 percent, are classified as undergoing treatment for a mental health condition — this is as many as all state, civil and forensic mental health treatment facilities combined. The county spends $848,000 a day, or more than $310 million a year, to “warehouse” them, according to Miami-Dade Circuit Court Judge Steve Leifman, a champion for mental health reform in Miami-Dade’s criminal justice system.

Now, after more than a decade of work, the Miami Center for Mental Health and Recovery, 2200 NW Seventh Ave., will open in about six months to treat and help rehabilitate people living with mental illnesses — such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and major depression — and substance abuse who often find themselves in jail again and again, largely because of their mental illness.

And it’s expected to save the county millions.

Here’s what to know about the newly renovated and gated complex:

Who Can Get Care at the New Center?

Patients: People who are arrested, or are inmates in county jail and are considered to be “high users of acute services,” the judge said. The center is expected to care for about 9,000 patients a year. It does not accept walk-ins.

What Type of Services, Treatment Will the Center Offer?

Services offered: The 208-bed center will offer outpatient behavioral health and primary care, tattoo removal, transitional housing, legal and social services, and training for culinary and other vocational work programs. It will also offer peer support programs to help patients learn how to manage their illnesses, just like how people are taught to manage their diabetes, the judge said.

Amenities: Patients will also have access to a basketball court, barber shop, a gym, a salon and yoga classes.

Safety features: Every door handle in the seven-floor building is designed to reduce the risk of self-harm, the lights are covered, toilets are against the wall and the ceilings are at least nine feet to reduce the risk of suicide by hanging.

Strategies: Leifman touts the center as one that incorporates the best ideas and strategies from across the country. When patients first arrive, for example, they can have their feet washed, an idea that stems from a homeless program in Boston.

Community involvement: The University of Miami’s Bascom Palmer Eye Institute, No. 1 in the country for ophthalmology, is in talks to provide eye care at the facility. Miami Dade College is helping with the culinary work training program, Camillus Health with podiatry care and Community Smiles with dental care. The center will also be a place for research, to gain a better understanding of how to best treat mental health.

Reaction: “My heart is just overwhelmed,” said El pagnier Kay “EK” Hudson, senior vice president of human resources and vice provost for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at Florida International University after being given a tour of the complex with several other members of the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors. “He’s [Leifman] concerned about the hearts of the people ... he has been intentional about making sure that they [the patients] feel welcomed, not just verbally but everything here is accommodating them,” said Hudson.

What Problems Will the Center Solve?

The goal: Leifman believes the center will set the tone for the future of mental health care in the criminal justice system, starting in Miami-Dade County, which he says has one of the highest percentages of people with mental illnesses in any urban area in the U.S., almost three times the national average.

Background: It’s the accumulation of decades of work that first began with the launch of the court’s renowned criminal mental health project in 2000, which has reduced the number of arrests from 118,000 to 53,000, saving the county $120 million, he said.

By the numbers: A recently updated study tracking 97 people who are considered to be “heavy users” of the county’s acute care and institutional services found that from 1985 to present day, they’ve been arrested 4,210 times, spent 97,438 days in jail and have so far cost taxpayers almost $26 million dollars, the judge said. Nearly all are homeless.

The inspiration: This is the type of facility Leifman wished existed back in January 2000 when a Harvard educated Jackson Health System psychiatrist walked into his courtroom, charged with possessing a dairy cart, a second degree misdemeanor under a local county ordinance.

The psychiatrist, who had a late onset of schizophrenia and was without a home, experienced a psychosis episode in court, claiming his parents were imposters — CIA agents sent to kill him — and that his real parents died in the Holocaust.

Leifman ordered evaluations. The psychiatrist, who was found to be “imminently dangerous” to himself and others, spent several weeks in jail, costing taxpayers thousands, before he was released. Then he disappeared. Leifman has never found him, and hopes to connect with the man’s family to talk.

“His case was a window to everything that was wrong, both with the criminal justice system and the community mental health system,” Leifman said. “We never talked to each other. There was no collaboration. We just kicked people from one system to another, costing you [taxpayers] tens and tens of millions of dollars here just in Dade County.”

The Cost

Construction: Renovation of the seven-story complex cost about $51.2 million, with $43.2 in county bond money and about $8 million from Jackson Health, Miami-Dade’s public hospital system.

Savings: Once the center opens, and federal benefits, such as Medicaid, kick in to help cover treatment costs, both the county and Jackson Health are expected to save at least $8 million a year, according to the judge. It’s expected that the building will pay for itself in three years.

Know More

Website: To learn more about the center, visit

©2023 Miami Herald. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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