Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Steven Leifman. Photo by Stian Roenning

When Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Steven Leifman speaks out, people listen. A cursory search of him online will show him quoted in a variety of publications ranging from the local, including the Miami Herald and Miami New Times, to the national such as the Huffington Post, USA Today, POLITICO and more.

All of this attention has kept Leifman constantly on the move. When the DBR caught up with him on an early November afternoon, he had recently returned from New York City to accept the Pardes Humanitarian Prize in Mental Health, an award bestowed on those who’ve helped to advance how mental health and addiction issues are treated in the public sphere.

As a man in high demand, he was already slated to set back on the road the following day.

“Unfortunately, one of the byproducts of this success is everyone now wants to do it overnight,” he quipped to the Daily Business Review. Although he notes “traveling way too much,” Leifman has set a nationwide example for reforming mental health treatment within the criminal justice system. In his work as a judge and advocate for mental health care, he has positioned Miami as a leader in decriminalizing and destigmatizing mental illness.

The judge’s concern for matters of mental health began decades earlier during an internship with a Florida state senator. After the editor of the Miami Herald contacted the office with concerns over the South Florida State Hospital in Broward County, Leifman was sent to investigate.

The conditions he saw shook him to his core.

“I found these seven men lying naked in a cell lying in their own feces while a guard stood there with a hose washing them down,” Leifman recounted. “And the only thing I could think of at the moment was ‘Oh My God, we treat animals in the zoo better than this.’ ”

He was particularly affected by the sight of one young man who was in all four-point restraints, screaming and visibly “ in his own personal hell.”

After learning that the patient was autistic as opposed to psychotic, Leifman was able to help secure his release. However, he couldn’t do the same for the other men who’d imprinted themselves on the future judge’s mind. “I grew up in a nice middle-class family and I’d never seen anything bad in my life,” he said. “It was pretty staggering and pretty disturbing.”

On Leifman’s appointment to the bench, history began repeating itself with alarming frequency.

“The same horrors that I saw at that state hospital I began to witness in our own jail here in Miami-Dade,” he said.

The judge remembers an instance in 2000 when one defendant, a Harvard-educated psychiatrist who had a late onset of schizophrenia, had a “full-blown psychotic episode” in his courtroom.

“He was screaming at the top of his lungs that his parents who were in the courtroom had died in the Holocaust and the people in the courtroom really were from the CIA and had come to kill him,” he recalled. “I ordered a battery of psychological evaluations because that was the only thing I’d been told we needed to do … only to have him adjudicated incompetent to stand trial, meeting criteria for involuntary hospitalization, and finding out that I had absolutely no legal authority to involuntarily hospitalize him anywhere. … I basically had to release him back to the street, floridly psychotic, after I had promised his parents with the lawyers that I would get their son help.”

Now catalyzed to conduct further research, the veil had been lifted for the judge on “what a horrible, ridiculous situation” existed in Miami-Dade.

“We have the largest percentage of people with serious mental illnesses of any urban area in the United States,” Leifman said. “Because Florida is 49th per capita in mental health funding, very few of these individuals were getting access to care and many, many were ending up in the criminal justice system with … nonviolent-type offenses.”

Since then, Leifman’s resolve to bring Miami-Dade’s mental health treatment in line with modern science has not only improved conditions for the mentally ill in the criminal justice system, but made the county an example for impactful reform across the country. With initiatives such as the Criminal Mental Health Project, Leifman has helped Miami-Dade assemble the resources to reduce arrests and recidivism in addition to providing mental health care more effectively.

It helps that he has the numbers to back him up.

“We keep data on every single mental health call to the city of Miami and Miami-Dade police departments,” Leifman said. “Those two agencies combined handled 83,427 mental health calls” between 2010 and 2017. “But more remarkably, they only made 149 arrests. Our jail number of arrests, as a result of the program, were reduced from 118,000 arrests a year in Miami-Dade to 56,000; our jail audit dropped from about 7,300 to about 4,000. It allowed us to close one of the three main jails in Dade County, [providing] savings of $12 million dollars a year. [The] building’s been closed for about six years now, so that’s about a $72 million dollar saving.”

Looking ahead, Leifman is eager about his work on establishing a “one-stop shop” for the most acutely ill in Miami. The facility will be geared toward offering both treatment and societal reintegration through occupational training.

With several projects underway, such as a national initiative called Stepping Up, Leifman shows few signs of slowing.

“I think when you give more than you’re looking to get — and you’re actually able to make this kind of contribution — it’s incredibly rewarding,” he said. “I don’t think there is any greater reward in justice than to see somebody come back in recovery, stopping that cycle and letting them get their lives back.”

 

Judge Steve Leifman Born: 1958, Miami Spouse: Osi Rind Children: Max Education: Florida State University, J.D., 1986; American University, B.S., 1981 Experience: Associate Administrative Judge, Miami-Dade County Court-Criminal Division, 1998-present; Miami-Dade County Court Judge, 1995-1997; Chairman, Steering Committee on Problem Solving Courts, Florida Supreme Court, 2018-present; Chairman, Task Force on Substance Abuse and Mental Health Issues in the Court, Florida Supreme Court, 2010-2018; Special Adviser on Criminal Justice and Mental Health, Florida Supreme Court, 2007-2010; Pardes Humanitarian Prize in Mental Health, 2018; Governing Magazine Public Official of the Year, 2016; Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Award for Judicial Excellence, 2015; William H. Rehnquist Award for Judicial Excellence, 2015