Volume 56
Issue 1
Winter '18

Solving the Problem of Criminalizing the Mentally Ill: The Miami Model

Written By: C. Joseph Boatwright II

Abstract

It does not seem plausible that a Harvard-educated psychiatrist and the former head of psychiatry at Jackson Memorial hospital in Miami-Dade County would be homeless and continually cycling through the criminal justice system. However, this was exactly the situation that faced Judge Steven Leifman, a county court judge in Miami-Dade County, Florida in 2000. Early in his career, Judge Leifman met with parents who asked if he could help their son who was scheduled to appear before Judge Leifman in court that day.  They explained that their son was a Harvard-educated psychiatrist and the former head of psychiatry at Jackson Memorial hospital in Miami-Dade County. Further, they explained that he was suffering from late-onset schizophrenia, was homeless, and had been arrested numerous times on minor offenses.  As a result, he had been in and out of the county jail system for years. Although Judge Leifman had not previously dealt with a similar situation, he assured the parents that he would help their son.

The accused man had been arrested on a second-degree misdemeanor for stealing a shopping cart. As Judge Leifman began to speak to him, the accused man had a psychotic episode in the courtroom. This caused Judge Leifman to order a mental competency examination for him. After the examination, it was determined that he was “incompetent to proceed” in court due to his mental illness and should be involuntarily committed to a facility where he could receive mental-health treatment and be restored to competency. However, Florida law, like the laws of many other states and jurisdictions, did not allow for the involuntary commitment of defendants in misdemeanor cases. As a result, he was released from jail without receiving mental health treatment, only to repeat the cycle of being arrested again and going through the same process without any treatment.

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