Break the cycle

In 2009, conditions in the jail’s psych ward had already been criticized by a Miami-Dade County grand jury.
In 2009, conditions in the jail’s psych ward had already been criticized by a Miami-Dade County grand jury. THE MIAMI HERALD

Miami-Dade County is on the cusp of breaking the ridiculously inhumane, costly and futile cycle of criminalizing mental illness. It has been a long-criticized system of jailing mentally ill residents who act out and become a danger to themselves and others because they are not receiving treatment — or have lapsed. They sometimes commit crimes and end up in the county jail’s horrendous psych ward. Upon release, the downward spiral starts all over again.

Last month, the Miami-Dade County Commission gave its initial approval to fast-track the construction of a Mental Health Diversion Facility. Credit Commissioner Sally Heyman, who sponsored the ordinance. When the issue goes before commissioners next week for a final vote, they should again give the facility the go-ahead to proceed — and at an accelerated pace.

The diversion center is absolutely crucial to improving the quality of life for mentally ill residents and their families and the communities in which they live. With mentally ill individuals getting counseling and treatment that, it is hoped, can have long-lasting and beneficial effects, police will have fewer incidents to which to respond, freeing them up to deal with serious crimes.

Think of how many times police have had to rouse a sleeping homeless person, likely mentally ill, arrest him for trespassing on private property, only to have him later released back to...what? In addition, the county’s psych ward has been under federal scrutiny since 2011. Two grand juries, too, have decried the deplorable conditions.

County Judge Steven Leifman has made humane treatment of mentally ill individuals his singular crusade. He has the numbers to show how they have suffered since mental hospitals, themselves often disturbing places, were shut down in the 1980s: From 1996 to 2013, he says, the overall inmate population in Florida increased by 57 percent; however, the number of inmates getting mental health treatment increased 153 percent in that time. Those with mild/moderate to severe mental illness increased 170 percent. And Miami-Dade is the epicenter.

Not all common sense has been lost. Police officers in every department in the county have undergone training to defuse potentially violent confrontations with mentally ill residents. As a result, out of about 10,500 mental health calls, Judge Leifman says, there have been only eight arrests. “Police are not making silly arrests,” Judge Leifman said.

Once commissioners give the final OK, a former hospital, now shuttered, will be retrofitted to offer appropriate and comprehensive services and treatment to mentally ill individuals in the criminal-justice system. When completed and open, mentally ill residents can access counseling, meds, vocational training and help with getting any government benefits for which they might be eligible. There will be a courtroom on site where a judge can determine if a suspect under arrest should enter the diversion program. A charge is dropped if the participant completes treatment required.

Funds to renovate the old, abandoned South Florida Evaluation and Treatment Center — $22.1 million — will come from the $2.9 billion Building Better Communities bonds, which county voters approved in 2004.

Just as Drug Court diverted substance abusers into treatment and changed lives mired in despair, so can this mental-health diversion facility create a new beginning for those who participate. It’s past time to break the cycle.