Film & TV

New Documentary Highlights Miami-Dade's Court Program for Mentally Ill

Judge Steven Leifman assists a mentally ill inmate.
Judge Steven Leifman assists a mentally ill inmate. Photo courtesy of PBS
Nearly 10 percent of Miami-Dade County's adult population suffers from serious mental illnesses such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder — the highest such percentage of any urban area in the nation.

"When I became a judge, I had no idea I was becoming a gatekeeper to the largest psychiatric facility in the state of Florida — the Miami-Dade County jail," Circuit Judge Steven Leifman says.

Leifman oversees the county's Criminal Mental Health Project, a nationally acclaimed jail-diversion initiative, which he hopes one day will become a model for how the rest of the nation deals with those living with mental illness.

"It's not just a local problem but a national one as well," Leifman says.

Across the country, about 2 million mentally ill inmates are booked into jails each year, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. That population is ten times likelier to wind up in jail than in a hospital.

Tonight a one-hour PBS documentary will show how Miami-Dade's novel court diversion program has steered many mentally ill inmates on a path from jail to recovery. Narrated by actor and director Rob Reiner, Definition of Insanity takes viewers inside Miami's justice system and follows a handful of cases over 18 months as they travel from the courtroom to community reintegration. The drama unfolds through the eyes of participants such as Justin Volpe, a peer counselor who inspires his clients as he guides them from jail back into society.

The documentary captures local victories, including the case of 25-year-old Trevor Dolan, who holds down a job while taking classes at Miami Dade College as he completes his treatment plan.

"I didn't think it would be this strenuous with the appointments they put on me, and my first mistake didn't help me either when I got tested for alcohol," Dolan says during a court hearing shown in the documentary. "But at the end of the day, people were trying to help you."

Leifman says the nation's mental health crisis is not a criminal justice problem but rather a community problem that requires a community solution. The film documents how Miami's diversion experiment — from checkups to group therapy — could be the key to solving that problem.

What makes the program unique is how it brings together police, prosecutors, public defenders, counselors, and medical professionals. Unlike other counties that push mentally ill offenders through the court system, Miami-Dade relies on a collaborative effort of many agencies working toward the goal of making jail a last resort and supporting the notion that recovery is possible.

That revolving-door process of recycling people from the streets and through the court system is what Leifman calls the "definition of insanity."

"We know how to fix it," he says of Miami-Dade's mental health crisis. "It's a question of political will and leadership."

The Definition of Insanity. 10 p.m. Tuesday, April 14, on WPBT.
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Freelancer Theo Karantsalis is a San Francisco native who lovingly served Miami’s Black community for many years as an offbeat librarian. He speaks softly and carries a big pen.
Contact: Theo Karantsalis