KANKAKEE — The United States has about 5 percent of the world’s 7.7 billion residents, but amazingly has 25 percent of the world’s inmate population.
According to Steven Leifman, a state of Florida 11th Judicial Circuit judge, the U.S. is leading the world with incarcerations because far too many people with mental illnesses are wrongly being placed behind bars.
Leifman, a national leader in solving complex and costly problems of people with untreated mental illnesses involved in the criminal justice system, was the featured speaker this week at the Duane Dean Behavioral Health Center program “Mental Illness and the Criminal Justice System.”
Since 1980, Leifman noted, the number of people going to jail has tripled and time of sentence has increased by a whopping 166 percent.
“As you drill deeper into these numbers, what you find is that much of these increases are due to untreated mental illnesses and substance abuse,” he said.
He added: “Jails should not be de facto mental health facilities. The answer is not building better jails, but to provide treatment for where the need is.”
In fact, he stressed, in the U.S. people with mental illnesses are nine times more likely to be sent to jail or prison rather than hospitalized.
“They are 18 times more likely to find a bed in the criminal justice system the a state civil hospital. Annually, 2 million people with serious mental illnesses are arrested. On any given day 400,000 (with mental illnesses) are in jail and another 800,000 are on probation or in some type of community control,” he said.
“Forty percent of all people with serious mental illnesses will come into contact with the criminal justice system at some point in their lives,” he said. “This is a shameful American tragedy that must and can be reversed.”
NATIONAL DECLINE IN TREATMENT
A significant part of the problem is that since 1955, the number of psychiatric hospital beds in the U.S. has decreased sharply — by about 90 percent — while the number of people with mental illnesses in local jails and state and federal prisons have soared by more than 400 percent.
He related Florida’s own figures to illustrate this point.
He noted 120,000 to 130,000 Florida residents with serious mental illnesses requiring immediate treatment are arrested and booked into Florida’s jails yearly.
“If you have a mental illness in Florida, you are 30 times more likely to find a bed in the criminal justice system rather than a state civil hospital. Jails in the U.S. are the largest psych warehouses,” he said.
The judge not only talks about the mental health crisis, but he acts upon it.
In 2000, he was the force behind the creation of the 11th Judicial Circuit Criminal Mental Health Project. This project steers people with mental illnesses, who have committed low-level crimes, from incarceration to community-based treatment.
He also was an architect of the Stepping-Up Initiative, a national coalition of mental health, substance abuse, government and law enforcement organizations. He also was co-founder of the Judges’ and Psychiatrists’ Leadership Initiative, a collaboration between the Council of State Government and the American Psychiatric Association Foundation.
The foundation is designed to improve judicial, community and systemic responses to people with behavioral health needs involved in the judicial system.
He also is the vision behind the creation of the Miami Center for Mental Health and Recovery. The 181,000-square-foot facility will include short-term housing, crisis care, health services, rehabilitation and a courtroom. It is expected to open in 2020.
‘WE ALL NEED TO WORK TOGETHER’
Duane Dean, under the direction of Victor Nevarez, is working on a similar, but much smaller approach to dealing with people facing legal punishment tied to mental health issues.
The organization purchased and is working on transforming the former Ervin Funeral Home, 1151 E. Court St., as a social service and counseling center.
The Kankakee County region is working to get a greater handle on dealing with those suffering from mental illnesses, as well as drug dependence. Since 2017, nearly 90 Kankakee County deaths were attributed to heroin and opioid abuse.
The goal of Duane Dean, like that of Leifman, is to keep these individuals out of jail and get them into recovery.
Bill Barnes, Duane Dean’s director of community relations and development, said the Kankakee County region finally is addressing this issue in a comprehensive fashion.
He noted numerous organizations now are working together to get treatment to those in need.
“That’s why it is so important to hear from someone like Judge Leifman. What are we doing as a community to help people with these problems other than putting them to jail,” Barnes said.
“Putting them in jail is so expensive and it really doesn’t help anyone. People are beginning to break the status quo here. Judge Leifman liked what we are doing. He encouraged everyone to keep it up.
“We all need to work together to get a handle on this.”
Leifman said every community across the country must take a serious, thoughtful look at how it deals with those with mental illness and drug dependency.
“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different outcome,” he said. “... There is something terribly wrong with a society that is willing to spend more on imprisoning people with mental illnesses than to treat them.”