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Battle brewing over Miami-Dade jail money for mentally ill inmates

When the public voted almost a decade ago for the massive $2.9 billion Building Better Communities bonds, a small piece of it — $22.1 million — was to go to a state-of-the-art facility that would rehabilitate mentally ill criminals back into the general population.

Now, Miami-Dade County Judge Steven Leifman, one of the most well-respected advocates for the mentally ill in the nation, plans on asking a county agency to recommend infusing another $20 million into the project — money that was intended for new county jails.

That’s a tough pill to swallow for Miami-Dade’s Corrections and Rehabilitation Director Tim Ryan, whose two main jails are more than 50 years old and are falling apart, and who has for years been trying to build a new facility on 55 acres adjacent to South Dade’s Krome Service Processing Center.

“We’ve needed a new stockade for 15 years,” Ryan said by phone from Houston on Tuesday. “The stockade (Turner Guilford Knight Correctional Center) is at capacity and needs a new roof, and I need to tear it down because it’s old.”

Leifman points out that a new jail will cost more than $300 million, and Ryan has only $90 million in the bank now from the 2004 bond issue.

“They’re $200 million short to build a jail. They’ll have to bond out anyway,” said Leifman. “The key is not to build a newer dog pound, but to divert them with treatment back into the community.”

Wednesday morning, Leifman plans to petition the Building Better Communities Citizens Advisory Council — a task force built out of the 2004 bond that ensures the public money is spent properly — to transfer $20 million from the jails fund to help renovate the seven-floor facility at 2200 NW Seventh Ave. It’s the old South Florida Evaluation and Treatment Center, where people who had been charged with felonies were rehabilitated.

Even before the Seventh Avenue facility closed in 2008, it was targeted in the bond issue at Leifman’s urging. When it did shut down, the state agreed to the lease the building to the county for $1 a year.

The plan was to turn the seven-story building into four floors of jail cells, a crisis unit, support systems for recovery, even short-term residences for those needing to be rehabilitated. It would also include a 16-bed crisis stabilization unit, medical exam area, showers, offices and dining areas.

When Leifman realized the $22.1 million fell well short of what was needed, he began seeking the remainder, ultimately targeting the jails’ piece of the 2004 General Obligation Bond.

“Every community needs this,” said Leifman. “It’ll be the first of its kind in the country.”

The judge points out that South Florida has the highest percentage of mental illness in the country, almost three times the national average, and that 23 percent of the county’s jailed inmates suffer from mental illness. He also says building the new facility would save taxpayers money because once the inmate moves from the corrections section to rehab, the bills are paid through Medicare.

The problems with the legendary ninth floor psychiatric ward of the county’s Civic Center area jail, where mentally ill inmates are currently housed, have been well documented in books and on film, and have been equally criticized for hellish conditions as one of the largest repositories of the mentally in Florida.

Ryan recognizes the difficulties in treating inmates suffering mental disorders. He says he’s got to be equally concerned about filling his department’s needs.

After hearing Leifman’s plea Wednesday, the 17-member advisory council will send its recommendation to the Miami-Dade County Commission. Advisory Council Chairwoman Katy Sorenson said at some point the project has to move forward and that she doesn’t expect much controversy from Wednesday’s hearing.

Ryan, who will miss the meeting because he’s out of town, said his fight won’t be over, even if the agency recommends in Leifman’s favor Wednesday.

“It’s a great idea, but I still need 2,000 beds at Krome,” said Ryan.