By Cleveland Tinker
Two national experts on reducing the incarceration rate of the mentally ill will be the featured guests at a seminar aimed at dealing with the issue locally.
The free seminar will be held at 6 p.m. Tuesday in the Bob Graham Center at Pugh Hall at 396 Buckman Drive on the University of Florida campus. The guest speakers will be Judge Steve Leifman of the 11th Judicial Circuit of Florida that serves Miami-Dade County and Leon Evans, CEO of the Center for Health Care Services in Bexar County, Texas.
Leifman created the groundbreaking 11th Judicial Circuit Criminal Mental Health Project in 2000, which consists of programs that steer people with mental illnesses who have committed low-level offenses from incarceration to community-based care. In 2015, Leifman received the William H. Rehnquist Award for Judicial Excellence for his work with helping people with mental illness. He is the chair of the Task Force on Substance Abuse and Mental Health for the Florida Supreme Court.
Evans developed an award-winning jail diversion program and has become a national leader in improving mental health care through multi-stakeholder collaboration.
The two will discuss cutting-edge community programs developed as part of the national “Stepping Up Initiative” at the seminar, co-sponsored by the National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI), Stepping Up Alachua, and the Bob Graham Center for Public Service.
Alachua County Commissioner Robert Hutchinson was one of five members of the Stepping Up Alachua planning committee who traveled last April to a “Stepping Up” summit in Washington. The Alachua County team was one of 50 out of 250 who applied to receive a grant to be a part of the initiative.
Hutchinson said Alachua County court services programs such as Drug Court and Teen Court, and the crisis intervention training local law enforcement officers receive helps make Alachua County a leader in dealing with mental health issues in the judicial system. Hutchinson said Alachua County, like most other counties, needs a “more comprehensive system” to help people with mental illnesses stay out of jail and get the treatment they need.
Hutchinson said funding is one of the main challenges to addressing the issue, and he said Florida ranks 50th among the states in per capita spending for mental health treatment.
“We need a lot more funding for early intervention programs that will address the needs of the mentally ill before they get to the point of incarceration,” Hutchinson said.
Lt. Brandon Kutner, spokesman for the Alachua County Sheriff’s Office, said one of the best programs he is aware of that deal with keeping the mentally ill out of jail is a program in Lee County in southwest Florida.
“They have a facility where they have the option to take nonviolent, misdemeanor offenders to keep them out of the jail environment,” Kutner said.
Roughly one third of the inmates at the Alachua County Jail, approximately 360 inmates, receive some sort of mental health medication, including psychotrophic drugs, but only about 40 of those need to be housed separately from other inmates because of the severity of their mental health issues, Kutner said. The jail’s daily population ranges between 800 and 900 inmates.