Tuesday, April 17, 2007

State aims to help mentally ill inmates

Miami judge appointed to lead the effort

Flanked by leaders of agencies involved in mental health and fighting crime, Chief Justice R. Fred Lewis announced an effort to help people with psychiatric and drug problems avoid winding up behind bars.

Lewis appointed Judge Steve Leifman of Miami as his special adviser on mental health and criminal justice. He said Leifman will immediately leave the bench and examine police and court procedures, as well as policies and practices in executive agencies affecting the mentally ill, the homeless and those with drug dependencies.

''When I became a judge, I had no idea that I was becoming the gatekeeper to the largest psychiatric facility in Florida - that is, the Miami-Dade County jail,'' Leifman said. ''Every day our jails, our courts and law-enforcement agencies are witnesses to a parade of misery brought on by untreated mental illness.''

Leifman, an associate administrative judge, will recommend ways of separating the mentally ill from the criminal system. He said such people are vulnerable both as victims and offenders.

''Few other illnesses or conditions exist in which lack of care places the individual at such substantial risk of arrest, incarceration, homelessness and death, as the result of tragic, avoidable causes such as suicide, police-related shootings or other violent events,'' he said.

Lt. Gov. Jeff Kottkamp, Department of Juvenile Justice Secretary Walt McNeil, Department of Children and Families Secretary Bob Butterworth, and Richard Prudom, chief of staff of the Department of Corrections, joined the judges at a news conference in the Supreme Court rotunda. Lewis and Kottkamp, an attorney, said legislative leaders have also bought into the idea of improving programs for steering sick people away from jails and prisons.

Butterworth's predecessor, former Secretary Luci Hadi, resigned last year while under a contempt-of-court threat from a Tampa Bay-area judge who ordered the state to get mentally ill offenders out of county jails. It was one of the first issues Gov. Charlie Crist dealt with early this year.

''More than one-half of all prisoners and more than one-half of all those incarcerated in our jails have mental health or substance-abuse problems, or both,'' Lewis said. ''It's estimated that as high as 72 percent of jail inmates in the counties around the state have some type of mental-health issue or substance abuse disorder.''

He said there are more than 86,000 homeless people in Florida and that 20 percent of them have mental-health problems. Lewis said 30 percent of the homeless have alcohol or drug dependencies and that more than 70,000 people with mental impairments are arrested in Florida each year.

''The issues associated with mental illness are creating incredible burdens for our criminal justice system,'' Kottkamp said. ''We're demonstrating a unified front here.''

Lewis and Butterworth, a former circuit judge and attorney general, said the new initiative would not violate the legal separation of executive, legislative and judicial powers. Butterworth said DCF would work with DJJ, DOC and the courts to find solutions.

''This is an issue that transcends all of our departments,'' he said.

Lewis said Leifman's work will be funded through June with a $35,000 grant from the Florida Bar Foundation. He said he hopes the Legislature will provide for a continuing operation in the 2007-08 budget.

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