Prosecutors can take the lead in tackling mental illness the right way

The controversial ninth floor of the Miami-Dade County Jail housed mentally ill people who had been arrested. It was closed in 2015.
The controversial ninth floor of the Miami-Dade County Jail housed mentally ill people who had been arrested. It was closed in 2015. Miami Herald

Justin Volpe became an all-too-common statistic. Living in Florida in 2006 without medication for his schizophrenia, he descended into a haze of hallucinations, paranoia and substance abuse — ultimately culminating in an arrest for grand larceny. He was taken to the notorious ninth floor of the Miami-Dade County Jail, the “forgotten floor” for people with serious mental illnesses, where inmates were often kept in crowded, unsanitary and perpetually lit cells.

In the United States, more than half of adults with a mental illness and more than 90 percent of adults with a substance-use disorder did not receive treatment in the last year. This public-health crisis has now become a criminal-justice crisis.

These concerns are front and center in Florida and too many other parts of the country where conversations around mental health are springing up in the wake of the Parkland tragedy and other instances of senseless gun violence. Even as our nation struggles with embracing wiser approaches to gun laws, the stark reality is people with mental illness are grossly overrepresented in the criminal-justice system.

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, more than half of the people in custody suffer from mental-health problems. Yet, research also indicates that people with mental illness pose no greater risk to the community. Instead, roughly 2 million people with mental illness cycle in and out of the criminal-justice system for acts tied to inadequate community services — misconduct that we criminalize stemming from chronic homelessness and self-medicating with drugs or alcohol.

People with mental illness who do pose a threat to public safety are the exception rather than the rule, and they often fall through the cracks of an overburdened and under-resourced community mental-health system.

This cycle of incarceration does not strengthen public safety and takes a tragic toll on the individuals and their families. Experts agree that incarceration is not conducive to recovery, and even short periods behind bars can have a negative impact on an individual’s stability and thereby exacerbate the likelihood of recidivism. Criminalizing mental illness also places an enormous burden on taxpayers and misdirects resources that would be better spent on treatment and prevention.

Miami-Dade’s criminal-justice system dramatically changed its approach to mental illness and its response to those who need our help. Volpe was one of the lucky ones — he received treatment, recovered and, for more than 10 years has used his experiences to help others as a peer recovery specialist working for Miami’s Jail Diversion Program.

In recognition of what is a growing mental-health crisis in the criminal-justice system, relevant leaders across the country are stepping up to work collaboratively with local officials and public-health providers in pursuit of solutions. In Miami, that translates into holistic services for the homeless, police crisis-intervention training, rapid diversion into treatment, specialized mental-health courts, outpatient competency restoration and plans for a new one-stop facility that would centralize mental healthcare and services.

A new generation of elected prosecutors are poised to follow this lead. Across the country, prosecutors such as Eric Gonzalez in Brooklyn, New York, Larry Krasner in Philadelphia, Andrew Warren in Tampa, Florida, and Carol Siemon in Lansing, Michigan ran on platforms dedicated to shrinking the footprint of the justice system. Addressing those struggling with mental illness is a vital component of that work. That is why they and other leaders are coming to Miami this week to learn about and see new thinking on the ground and to chart a new course for their offices.

More than 300 mental-health courts already exist in the United States. In Miami, prosecutors in those courts offer people with mental illness a fresh start by diverting their cases and offering treatment instead. But real change requires broader systemic reform.

To prevent people with mental illness from entering the justice system in the first instance, police officers need specialized training about how to interact with people experiencing a mental-health crisis. We also need alternatives to arrest or the emergency room — community respite centers, where individuals in crisis can be immediately connected to services in a warm, trauma-responsive setting.

We know that excessively incarcerating people with mental illness is not making our communities safer. It’s making them sicker — at an enormous human and financial cost. It’s time for prosecutors to step up and lead the national movement for more compassionate and effective mental-health and criminal-justice systems.

Steven Leifman is an associate administrative judge for the Eleventh Judicial Circuit Court of Florida. He chairs the Florida Supreme Court Task Force on Mental Health and is a member of the board of the American Psychiatric Foundation. Miriam Aroni Krinsky spent 15 years as a federal prosecutor and is the executive director of Fair and Just Prosecution, a national network of elected prosecutors committed to new thinking and innovation.