News Release Header
For Immediate Release:
April 21, 2016
Media Contact:
Heather Needelman

Unprecedented national summit gathers teams from 50 counties to reduce the number of people with mental illnesses in jails

MIAMI – A team of criminal justice and behavioral health professionals from Miami-Dade County participated in a two-day summit in Washington, D.C., that brought together select teams from U.S. communities as part of a national initiative to address the mental health crisis in our nation’s jails.

“This was an excellent opportunity to learn from top professionals in the country, on how to reduce the overrepresentation of people with mental illnesses in our jail,” said Judge Steve Leifman, who led the Miami team and has championed this issue for over 16 years. 

The Stepping Up Summit, which convened jail administrators, law enforcement officials, county elected officials, psychiatrists and other stakeholders from jurisdictions across the country, gave a comprehensive, system-level plan that, when implemented, will reduce the number of people with mental illnesses in jail.

The team from Miami-Dade County consisted of Administrative Judge Steve Leifman, County Commissioner Sally Heyman, Deputy Corrections Director Daniel Junior, Public Defender Carlos Martinez, Assistant State Attorney Don Horn and South Florida Behavioral Health Network CEO John Dow.  At the two-day summit, county teams took stock of work already underway in their counties and efforts to move forward.

Miami-Dade County Commissioner Sally Heyman, Chair of National Association of Counties Justice and Public Safety Committee, has made this issue a national county priority.  “We over-criminalize and over-incarcerate our most vulnerable and disenfranchised people,” said Heyman, “and those with mental illness are the highest amongst them.  The actions taken and shared by Judge Leifman and Miami-Dade County demonstrate both leadership and commitment for improvement.”

Stepping Up was launched in May 2015 as a partnership of the Council of State Governments Justice Center, the National Association of Counties, and the American Psychiatric Association Foundation.  Miami-Dade was one of four counties participating in the original launch sites with all involved stakeholder agencies participating and subsequent legislation supporting this initiative.  The initiative is designed to rally national, state, and local leaders around the goal of achieving an actual reduction in the number of people with mental illnesses and substance use disorders in jail.

Jails should no longer serve as de facto psychiatric facilities.  Miami-Dade County has taken a leadership position to address the crisis locally, involving the medical community of Jackson Health System and South Florida Behavioral Health Network collaborating to effect change.  “Judge Leifman and the financial commitment of our general obligation bond will ensure Miami-Dade will continue to be a national leader in dealing with the mental health crisis,” said Mayor Carlos Gimenez. 

County leaders report there are more people with mental illnesses in jails than ever before, and the majority are not a public safety risk. The number of people with mental illnesses in jails is three to six times higher than that of the general public.  The exorbitant cost to taxpayers to arrest, adjudicate, segregate, and supervise these individuals is having little to no impact in terms of public safety or public health.

The Miami-Dade County team with other county teams engaged with criminal justice and behavioral health experts, along with fellow county representatives from across the country.  Team Miami-Dade, sharing its successes, worked on-site to develop and evaluate plans to reduce mental illness in the local jail and establish a concrete set of priorities to take action and measure progress. 

During the Summit, U.S. Senator Al Franken at the Federal level and Florida Senator Miguel Diaz de la Portilla at the State level were recognized and honored for their leadership and sponsored Legislation on mental illness and the criminal justice system.