Mental Health Colorado promotes a “Miami Model” for decriminalizing mental illness

Diversion initiative allowed Miami to close a jail, save taxpayers millions, and get care to those in need ~

DENVER — Mental Health Colorado, the state’s leading mental health advocacy organization, is looking at Miami as a model for keeping individuals with mental illnesses out of jail so they can get the care they need. Under its diversion initiative, Miami-Dade County closed a jail facility—saving taxpayers $12 million per year—and dramatically reduced the number of shootings and injuries of people with mental illnesses.

“We shouldn’t be building larger jails—we should be aiming to close overcrowded and outdated jails and replace them with effective systems of care,” Mental Health Colorado President & CEO Vincent Atchity said. “As Miami has proven, providing access to effective care for people will yield better public safety and better public health outcomes than our current failed system of endlessly cycling people through criminal courts, jails, and prisons.”

Atchity has spent the last 4 years working to keep Colorado leaders and decision-makers focused on the intersection of mental health and the criminal justice system, with the aim of reducing the incarceration of people with unmet mental health needs. On average, people with mental illnesses are incarcerated four to eight times longer than those without a mental illness, costing seven times more.

Since Miami-Dade County launched their diversion initiative in 2000, 6,500 law enforcement officers have received crisis intervention training. In nine years, the Miami-Dade Police Department and the City of Miami Police Department have responded to nearly 72,000 mental health crisis calls—resulting in 38,000 diversions to crisis units and just 138 arrests.

Atchity meets this week with Florida Judge Steve Leifman, who helped launch Miami-Dade County’s initiative. Like most jails in the U.S., Miami-Dade County had a very high prevalence of inmates with unmet mental health needs. Leifman was frustrated by how many people with mental illnesses kept repeatedly cycling through his court.

“We’ve truly seen a cultural shift in how the community addresses mental illness,” Leifman said. “Police injuries have gone down almost 100%, people are getting better access to care, family members of people with a mental illness are no longer afraid to call the police, and everybody is working much more cohesively and collaboratively.”

Last year, Denver passed Caring4Denver, a ballot measure that will distribute more than $35 million per year to support mental health. Atchity has arranged for staff from Caring4Denver to meet with Leifman and learn about Miami’s’ diversion initiative. Atchity hopes the meeting will influence the way Caring4Denver spends its money.

“There are other effective models for diversion around the country—in Los Angeles, New York, Seattle, San Antonio. Denver and other Colorado communities can learn from each of these,” Atchity said. “But the Miami Model stands out on account of Judge Leifman’s great leadership, and on account of the pathway the model offers for Colorado to address the competency restoration backlog, which costs the state $10 million in fines for failing to address civil rights violations and the terms of a federal consent decree.”

Leifman also plays a key leadership role in a national workgroup Atchity started in partnership with The Equitas Project and the David and Laura Merage Foundation to draft model law to effectively decriminalize mental health.

“The key piece about this Miami model is recognizing that behaviors that can lead to criminal charges are often behaviors that are driven more by unmet health needs than by criminal intent,” Atchity said. “One of the most important things a community can do is meet health needs with an effective health response—not compound the stigma associated with mental illness and addiction with the additional stigma of criminalization.”