A Separate Justice System for the Mentally Ill?

A Separate Justice System for the Mentally Ill?
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Why you should care

Because about half of federal prisoners battle behavioral health disorders. 

Judge Steve Leifman of Florida’s 11th Judicial Circuit works out of the main criminal courthouse in Miami-Dade County with a staff of 24, including seven peer specialists — four of which are graduates of his criminal mental health program.

Justin Volpe, 33, is one. Each day, the peer specialist works with people in the Criminal Mental Health Project, a program Leifman launched in 2000 to divert defendants with mental health disorders out of the criminal justice system and into long-term community treatment. Volpe plays basketball with the participants, buys them cigarettes, grabs a coffee with them. Since 2008, he says he’s worked with 700 people who have come through the program. He has a wife and a 5-year-old boy. He has a full caseload.

A decade ago Volpe was in a very different place. After he stopped taking his meds for a form of schizophrenia, he got into street drugs and ended up in jail on a petty theft rap. “[My family] got me linked to the jail diversion program Judge Leifman started,” he says. “They got me out, put me in a recovery house and moved me to treatment, and I started taking meds again. But it wasn’t that easy. I started to slip and slide when I got back to the community.”

Judge Leifman is a pioneer in what has since become an even stronger movement away from the tough-on-crime federal policies of the early ’90s, which expanded the death penalty and offered states money to build more prisons. Instead, the current approach to crime and punishment is becoming more pragmatic, data-driven and nuanced. And the American public is responding positively as, over time, the issue has become less red and blue and more bipartisan. In a recent Gallup poll, the number of people who think the justice system isn’t tough enough has decreased significantly — from 65 percent in 2003 to 45 percent in 2016. And nearly 10 percent more people would like to see the justice system go even lighter on defendants.

Mental health [issues are] … something that’s universal, could hit any walk of life, any socioeconomic group.

Melba Pearson, Miami-Dade state attorney’s office

So-called problem-solving courts — drug courts, domestic violence courts and others — are all part of this movement. There now are some 350 adult mental health courts in the U.S., up from around 150 in 2007. From Chattanooga to Wichita to Miami-Dade, they are designed to handle the growing number of offenders with mental illnesses. In Florida, about 20 percent of the inmate population has some form of mental illness. The national numbers are even darker: A 2006 survey revealed that 61 percent of women in federal prisons battle behavioral health disorders; for males, it’s 44 percent.

Here’s how a mental health court works: Postbooking and pretrial, defendants who exhibit mental health disorders are screened. (Typically, they have committed misdemeanors and second- and third-degree felonies.) If a defendant qualifies, the presiding judge can set aside sentencing in favor of treatment, which usually lasts from six months to two years, with regular progress reports submitted to the court. Complete the treatment program and the case usually is dismissed. Stop the treatment and the case typically goes back on the criminal calendar.

Academic research shows that this approach is effective. In a 2015 literature review of mental health court data, 15 articles examined recidivism rates for participants, and 13 found significantly fewer arrests and shorter sentences. “I think every single county should have something like this,” says Melba Pearson of the Miami-Dade state attorney’s office. “Mental health [issues are] not something that is exclusive to any part of the country. It’s something that’s universal, could hit any walk of life, any socioeconomic group.” According to Karli Keator, director of the National Center for Mental Health and Juvenile Justice, juvenile mental health courts can help offenders even earlier. “When used correctly, they’re keeping kids from penetrating further into the justice system,” Keator says.

According to Leifman, 70 percent of the defendants in the felony diversion program successfully complete his therapeutic program, and the recidivism rate for these participants is a mere 6 percent. The rate for people with serious mental illnesses who are incarcerated without a diversion treatment program is 54 percent, according to one study from 2003. Since 2008, the felony diversion program alone is estimated to have saved Miami-Dade County roughly 25,000 jail days, more than 68 years. Among individuals charged with misdemeanors, recidivism has been reduced from 75 percent to 20 percent annually. Over the past 6 years, officers from the two largest police departments responded to 60,427 Crisis Intervention Team calls and made only 119 arrests. Instead, they diverted many of these individuals to crisis stabilization programs or into the mental health system. “Our jail audit plummeted,” Leifman says. “We closed two of our jails.”

Still, most counties in the U.S. do not provide mental health court alternatives. Setting them up requires separate funding from the criminal justice system, which means getting the buy-in of everyone from local mental health officials to public defenders to judges. A set-aside courtroom is required as well as court officers who are trained to deal with the mentally ill. Plus, some experts claim that the increased number of mental health courts reflects the sorry state of funding for regular community mental health care.

“You need to get to the underlying causes of the behavior,” notes Richard Schneider, a Canadian judge. One day, he says, the problem-solving ethos of mental health courts may be folded into the regular court system, leading to their obsolescence. Mentally ill defendants won’t need a special court to hear their cases; judges and other officers of criminal courts will have the training and mindset to deliver swift — and appropriate — justice to the mentally ill.

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