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Other Jails Study Miami Diversion Program to Keep Mentally Ill from Repeated Incarceration

Faced with repeated jail admissions of people suffering from schizophrenia and other serious mental illnesses (SMI), the city of Miami has developed one of the nation’s most comprehensive diversion programs, focusing on treatment and community integration rather than incarceration for those charged with misdemeanors or low-level felonies. The brainchild of state Circuit Court Judge Steve Leifman, it is being studied by other jurisdictions, including North Carolina, where Leifman traveled in October 2023 to meet with state Supreme Court Chief Justice Paul Newby and officials with the North Carolina Department of Health.

Approximately 1.7 million people with SMI cycle in and out of U.S. jails every year—that is, if they aren’t killed before getting out. Suicide, drug overdoses and fatal beatings by violent guards take their toll in local lockups, where the rate of SMI is four to six times higher than in the general population. Leifman’s program is the result of his decades-long mission to restructure the way the county’s criminal justice system handles mental illness.

Defendants sent to diversion must follow a strict treatment plan, including therapy, 12-step meetings and regular court check-ins. Participants are shepherded by a team that includes a court case manager and a peer specialist who has conquered his or her own mental health challenges. The team helps participants secure food, clothing and housing, offering assistance in applying for benefits and enrolling in vocational rehabilitation, so that they can find work and pay for their own care and support.

Team leader Alejandro Aristizabal says three-quarters of those who complete the program will not get re-arrested within the next year. The court will stop monitoring participants after they finish the program and graduate, but to provide a safety net, they can remain connected to treatment and services indefinitely. Alretha Toombs, 61, had been booked into the Miami jail over 70 times in 40 years for low-level offenses connected to crack cocaine addiction. The diversion program has helped Toombs conquer her addiction and given her stability through medication, housing and job assistance.

The success of Miami’s approach lies in its multifaceted support system, which not only diverts individuals from incarceration but also provides essential resources for their rehabilitation. Despite its success, securing consistent funding is a challenge. Leifman says political will and steadfast leadership are required to keep pushing reform forward in a system that usually comes up short in its treatment of mentally ill defendants.


Source: PBS Frontline

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