Fifteen years ago, a man screamed wildly in Judge Steven Leifman’s courtroom about how the couple behind him were not his parents but impostors who worked for the CIA. The man had been arrested for a small misdemeanor and was now having a psychotic episode, claiming his real parents had died in the Holocaust. Leifman later learned the man was a Harvard educated-doctor and was suffering from early-onset schizophrenia.
Leifman said the incident was “traumatic’’ and sparked his desire to connect the mental health community and criminal justice system. In 2000, Leifman started the Eleventh Judicial Circuit Criminal Mental Health Project, aiming to steer those with serious mental illness away from the criminal justice system and into treatment centers. Miami-Dade County is home to the largest percentage of people with serious mental illnesses — schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, major depression — of any urban community in the country, according to the Project.
Leifman also started a Crisis Intervention Team — a program that teaches law enforcement to recognize signs of mental illness. Leifman’s program lead to fewer incarcerations and a reduced cost to taxpayers.
Earlier this month, Leifman received the William H. Rehnquist award, a prestigious national judicial honor given by the National Center for State Courts.
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Jorge Labarga, Chief Justice of the Florida Supreme Court, called Leifman with the good news.
“It was quite an honor,” Leifman said. “It’s extremely humbling to receive recognition, but what I’m most thrilled about is the recognition it will give to the issue of overrepresentation of people with mental health issues in the criminal justice system.”
This year is the 20th year the William H. Rehnquist award has been given. Leifman is the first Florida judge to receive the accolade. U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts will present him with the award at a dinner on Nov. 19.
“Judge Leifman recognized and identified problems within the justice system, and he was relentless in his efforts to change things,” Mary McQueen, president of the National Center for State Courts, said in a statement. “His work demonstrates the difference that judicial excellence, and action, can make in improving the administration of justice.”
Leifman, 56, is an associative administrative judge in the criminal division. He has been a judge since 1995, except for a brief stint when he was a litigator from 1997 to 1998.