Judge will study jail, mental health issues

Published April 5, 2007

TALLAHASSEE - Partly in response to the Pinellas County jail crisis, Florida's chief justice appointed a Miami judge on Wednesday to advise him on criminal justice and mental health issues.

Associate Administrative Judge Steve Leifman will work in Tallahassee for the next three months and report directly to Chief Justice Fred Lewis. Leifman is tasked with analyzing the ways the court system, the jails and mental health systems intersect, with an eye toward moving the mentally ill out of jails.

"When I became a judge, I had no idea that I was becoming a gatekeeper to the largest psychiatric facility in Florida, that is the Miami-Dade County Jail," Leifman said.

Lewis said the initiative was spurred in part by a Pinellas County situation. In October, Circuit Judge Crockett Farnell charged the Department of Children and Families with contempt and imposed $80,000 in fines, because the agency was not moving mentally ill patients out of jails quickly enough.

The DCF, charged with caring for the state's mentally ill, is required by state law to transfer inmates from jails to mental hospitals within 15 days after a judge declares them incompetent for trial.

One of the first things that Bob Butterworth, the new head of the department, did was to negotiate a deal resolving the contempt charges. The agency put the $80,000 fine toward paying for a new program to treat mentally ill inmates while they are still in jail, rather than waiting for an available bed at a state facility. The state also spent another $16.6-million to pay for 373 more mental health beds.

"I think the leadership of the executive and the leadership of Mr. Butterworth defused a very, very serious circumstance, and everyone was able to walk away from that with dignity and with knowing that we are connected and we can resolve these problems better cooperatively," Lewis said.

The Florida Bar Foundation is funding the $35,000 cost of Leifman's assignment in Tallahassee through June 30. Lewis said he hopes the Legislature will appropriate more money later.