First-of-its-kind mental health facility to treat those caught in criminal justice system

MIAMI – The Miami-Dade County Jail serves as the largest psychiatric institution in Florida. 

It has as many beds for people with mental illnesses as all state civil and forensic mental health treatment facilities combined. 

A first-of-its-kind facility in the world will soon open in Miami-Dade County to help people caught in the system. 

It’s called the Miami Center for Mental Health and Recovery. 

When its doors open, tentatively in about six months, it will offer treatment and work to rehabilitate people with serious mental illnesses who are caught in the criminal justice system. 

This is the culmination of about 16 years of study and planning.

“At the time when we started the project, there were about 118,000 arrests per year in Dade County. There were about 7,400 people in jail. We were over capacity in the jail. It was a nightmare. The federal government was coming into investigate because it was so bad,” said Judge Steve Leifman with the 11th Judicial Circuit of Florida. 

In fact, it was CBS News Miami’s reporting in 2007 that lead to that federal investigation, the 9th floor of the Miami-Dade jail. 

Insiders called it the “forgotten floor.” 

CBS News Miami’s Michelle Gillen exposed the treatment of people who were incarcerated and suffering from mental illness. 

Justin Volpe was there at the time. 

He was incarcerated on the forgotten floor as our cameras were rolling.

“I got arrested as a result of having a serious mental health issue which I was unaware of at the time. I knew my life was out of control, but I didn’t know what other factors were helping to make this scenario worse. In jail, I was put on the 9th floor. The forgotten floor which we referred to it and it was just insane, it was insane up there. I knew I wasn’t well, but the conditions were terrible. People being abused all the time, people screaming around the clock, the only place to lay was in a pile of feces, vomit and urine,” said Volpe.

As a result of the deplorable conditions the Federal Government sued. 

As part of a settlement, Miami Dade County closed the 9th floor and those who were incarcerated were moved to a new facility. 

Our cameras were rolling on that too as 400 people were transferred to the Miami-Dade Turner Guilford Knight Correctional Center.

It was a temporary fix for those who were mentally ill but the beginning of a new chapter that brings us to where we are today.

The Miami Center for Mental Health and Recovery is the next phase in trying to fix a broken system and Judge Steve Leifman has been part of the project since the beginning.

“We can gently reintegrate people with these very serious illnesses back to the community, in recovery and hook them up with the support they need to maintain their recovery, plus they will have job skills and they’ll have reason to get up every morning,” said Judge Leifman.

The facility will offer, among other things, transitional housing, outpatient behavioral health and primary care. 

There will also be vocational rehabilitation and employment services and a courtroom and a space for legal and social service agencies.

“The illnesses are complex, but the solutions are not. We just have not offered them. It’s about relationships. It’s about helping people reconnect and once you are able to do that, it really helps them in their own recovery,” said Judge Leifman.

Judge Steve Leifman says the county spends $636,000 per day or $232 million per year to house an average daily population of 2,400 people with mental illnesses. 

By contrast, the state spends just $47.3 million annually to provide community-based mental health services to about 34,000 people in Miami-Dade and Monroe Counties. 

To put it another way, Judge Leifman says $100,000 annually in taxpayer dollars are spent for each person with a mental illness in jail compared to $1400 for each person who manages to access care in the community.

After Justin Volpe was released from the 9th floor he got treatment and was put in the jail diversion program. 

He was eventually offered a job as a peer support specialist with the county.

“It gave me a sense of purpose and my life started to get better. I met what would be my wife, we have been married 15 years. We have two beautiful kids, we have a house. I travel all around the country sharing my recovery story. Sixteen years later, the state attorney opened my old case and dismissed the charges. I have a clean record now. It’s a miracle,” said Volpe.

Police and jails are increasingly the first and only responders to people in crisis due to untreated mental illnesses. 

Judge Leifman says the facility will focus on serving people who are the highest utilizers of the criminal justice system and mental health services in Miami-Dade County.


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