New PBS Series Shows How Miami Dade Went From Hellhole To National Model For Helping Persons With Mental Illnesses

(4-13-20) PBS will premier two separate and important documentaries tonight and tomorrow at 10 p.m. EST about mental illness in America.

BEDLAM will trace the history of mental health treatment (or lack thereof) in America. At 2 p.m. EST today, the documentary’s director will host a Facebook discussion about mental health care that will feature  Daniel H. Gillison, Jr. the CEO of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. You can participate by signing up here.

Tuesday night,  4-14-20,  PBS will show The Definition of Insanity, an eight part series that reveals how Miami Dade County, Florida, has transformed itself from a hellhole of misery into a national model when it comes to jail diversion, Crisis Intervention Team Training, and other mental health services.

I’m especially interested in The Definition of Insanity because two advocates, whom I greatly admire, are responsible for the series and because my book, CRAZY: A Father’s Search Through America’s Mental Health Madness, exposed the barbaric conditions that were in the Miami Dade jail back in 2006.

Judge Steven Leifman, who was responsible for getting me into that jail, has become a nationally recognized expert on how communities can better deal with individuals when they become entangled in the criminal justice system. Norman “Norm” J. Ornstein, who you might have seen on television offering expert commentary as an American political scientist and resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington D.C. conservative think tank, collaborated with Judge Leifman and is a major financial backer of the series.

Ornstein created the Matthew Harris Ornstein Memorial Foundation Inc., after his 34 year-old son who died from carbon monoxide poisoning in 2015. Matthew fell asleep in a tent with a propane lantern emitting toxic fumes – an accident — but his death was shaped by a lack of judgment driven by his 10-year struggle with mental illness, his father said.

More than 360,000 individuals with diagnosed mental illnesses are currently in our jails and prisons, and 2.2 million are booked into jails each year. What Judge Leifman has demonstrated and the Ornstein PBS series poignantly documents, is how our communities could dramatically reduce that number and help people recover while saving tax dollars!

Judge Leifman launched the 11th Judicial Circuit Criminal Mental Health Project (CMHP) in 2000 to divert individuals with serious mental illnesses, who do not pose public safety risks,  from the criminal justice system and into community-based treatment and support services. Since then, the city has reformed itself.

  1. To date, more than 6,000 law enforcement officers from all 36 municipalities in the county have received 40-hour Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) training to teach law enforcement officers to more effectively respond to people experiencing mental health crisis in the community.
  2. Between 2010 and 2017, CIT officers from the two largest law enforcement agencies in the county responded to 83,427 mental health calls, resulting in 15,894 diversions from jail, 47,115 individuals linked to community treatment, and only 149 arrests.
  3. Among post-booking jail diversion participants, recidivism rates have been reduced by approximately 75%.
  4. The average daily jail population declined from 7,200 to 4,000 inmates and the county was able to close one jail facility resulting in $12 million in annual savings.

The U.S. Supreme Court recognized Judge Leifman for his work and Miami Dade now has become a must-visit community when others are looking for ways to curb the inappropriate incarceration of persons whose real crime is that they got sick. Folks like my son, Kevin, who was arrested when he broke into an unoccupied  stranger’s house while psychotic to take a bubble bath.

Before the corona virus began restricting travel, Judge Leifman was criss-crossing the country teaching judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys and other law officials what he has learned reforming Miami’s system. Advocates in their local communities now can use the documentary to help encourage and educate their elected officials – if you share it!

Judge Leifman and Norman Ornstein are champions – individuals who have chosen to fight tirelessly for reforms. Bravo! We owe you both tremendous thanks.

After his death, his friends and family gathered to come up with a way to honor Matthew’s life. From those conversations, the foundation was born. The foundation started as a small initiative in 2015, but thanks to the generosity of its donors has grown into a formidable force advocating for mental illness and urban debate.

We encourage you to read the rest of this web page to learn about our documentary, “Definition of Insanity” on the mental health court system in Miami, our sponsorship of LEAP trainings taught by the world-renowned Dr. Xavier Amador, and the Matthew Harris Ornstein Debate Institute.

About the author:

Pete Earley is the bestselling author of such books as The Hot House and Crazy. When he is not spending time with his family, he tours the globe advocating for mental health reform.

Learn more about Pete.