Judge Steven Leifman receives Pardes Humanitarian Prize in Mental Health

The 2018 Pardes Humanitarian Prize in Mental Health has been awarded by the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation to Judge Steven Leifman, an Associate Administrative Judge and chair of the board of the South Florida Behavioral Health Network.

The ceremony took place at the Pierre Hotel in New York on Oct. 26 following the annual Brain and Behavior Research Foundation International Mental Health Research Symposium. Leifman was honored for pioneering a public policy movement to reduce the number of people with mental illness and substance use disorders in the criminal justice system.

Judge Leifman is a national leader in solving the complex and costly problem of people with untreated mental illnesses being incarcerated rather than treated. In 2000, he launched a pioneering initiative in Miami-Dade County called the Eleventh Judicial Circuit Criminal Mental Health Project, which steers people with mental illnesses, who do not pose significant threats to public safety, away from the criminal justice system and into community-based treatment.

He also started the Crisis Intervention Team program in Miami-Dade which teaches law enforcement officials to recognize the signs and symptoms of mental illness, how to de-escalate potentially dangerous situations, and where to take individuals in crisis for treatment rather than arresting them.

As a result of this project, arrests in Miami Dade decreased from 118,000 to 56,000 annually and recidivism dropped by almost 50 percent. The jail population plunged from 7,300 to 4,000 inmates, closing a jail and generating $12 million in annual savings.

Crime and burdens on taxpayers have been reduced, and public health, safety, and recovery outcomes have improved. This initiative directed so many people to treatment rather than jail and prison that Miami-Dade was able to close the entire Women’s Detention Center in 2012 and the notorious ninth-floor psychiatric ward at the Miami-Dade County Jail.

Nationwide, according to a survey by the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 40 percent of people with serious mental illnesses have been arrested one or more times. An estimated 1.8 million people with serious mental illness are booked into jails annually, and on any given day 500,000 people with mental illnesses are incarcerated in jails and prisons.

In 2017, Judge Leifman obtained approval and funding from Miami-Dade County for the development of the Miami Center for Mental Health and Recovery, a new state-of-the-art facility that will provide a continuum of mental healthcare for the most critically ill and vulnerable individuals in the community. Scheduled to open in 2020, the center will provide a range of mental and primary healthcare services, as well as assistance with housing, employment training, daily activities and courtroom support.

Judge Leifman was an architect of the Stepping-Up Initiative, a national coalition of mental health, substance abuse, government and law enforcement organizations, and a cofounder of the Judges’ and Psychiatrists’ Leadership Initiative, a collaboration between the Council of State Governments and the American Psychiatric Association Foundation designed to improve judicial, community, and systemic responses to people with behavioral health needs who are involved in the justice system.

“People with mental illness being incarcerated is the one area of civil rights where we’ve lost ground in this country,” Judge Leifman said. “They need to live a life of recovery that enables them to contribute to society. We shouldn’t allow people’s lives to be ruined because they have an illness.”

The Pardes Humanitarian Prize in Mental Health was established in 2014, and is awarded annually to recognize individuals or organizations that are making a profound and lasting impact in advancing the understanding of mental health and improving the lives of people with mental illness and addiction disorders.

It focuses public attention on the burden that mental illness places on individuals and society, and the urgent need to expand mental health services globally. Nominations are solicited worldwide. The recipient is chosen by an international distinguished committee of eleven members and receives an honorarium of $150,000. The prize is named in honor of Herbert Pardes, MD, a noted psychiatrist, outspoken advocate for the mentally ill, and the award’s first recipient.

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