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The Definition Of Insanity

Airs Tuesday, April 14, 2020 at 10 p.m. on KPBS TV + Thursday, April 16 at 10 p.m. on KPBS 2 + PBS Video App

Trevor Dolan, Jail Diversion Project client, appears in court. (undated photo)

Credit: Courtesy of Found Object

Above: Trevor Dolan, Jail Diversion Project client, appears in court. (undated photo)

The new documentary, “The Definition of Insanity,” explores the groundbreaking work of the Miami-Dade Criminal Mental Health Project (CMHP), an approach being heralded as a model for helping to solve the mental health crisis in America.

A people-powered community-wide safety net, CMHP works through the court system to steer people with mental illness — as their legal cases hang in the balance — on a path from incarceration to recovery.

Trailer | The Definition Of Insanity

Shocked by how people with mental illness were treated in his county’s jails, a judge sets out to work with a team of dedicated public servants to help people with mental illness navigate the sometimes cruel system, and live lives full of possibilities.

Shocked by how people with mental illness were treated in Miami-Dade’s jails, Judge Steven Leifman works with a team of dedicated public servants, as well as former adversaries in the criminal justice system, to help people with mental illness navigate from lives of tragedy to possibility.

Photo credit: Courtesy of Found Object

Judge Steven Leifman in his chambers at Miami-Dade's Gerstein Courthouse, Florida. (undated photo)

Building on the story of Miami’s once-failed mental health system — a familiar national narrative of over-incarceration and brutal mistreatment — "The Definition Of Insanity" instead reveals a humane criminal justice approach to mental illness that is orchestrated from the court outwards into the community.

With inside access to the Miami-Dade court system and the police, as well as the participation of the Public Defender’s Office and the office of the State’s Attorney, filmmakers Gabriel London and Charlie Sadoff follow the ins and outs of CMHP “client” cases over 18 months, from the courtroom through community reintegration.

Photo credit: Courtesy of Found Object

Alejandro Aristizábal (left), Felony Diversion Program Manager for the 11th Judicial Circuit Court, appears in court with Charlie Gonzalez (center), a Jail Diversion Project client, in the Gerstein courthouse. Miami-Dade, Florida (undated photo).

The drama unfolds through the eyes of participants ranging from Justin, a formerly-incarcerated peer counselor who guides CMHP clients from jail through community placements, to Trevor, a young man trying to hold down a job while completing his court-supervised treatment plan.

Facing Mental Health Struggles in Prison – Justin’s Story

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Peer counselor Justin Volpe describes his own experience of facing the mental health system while also serving time in the Dade County Jail 11 years ago. He explains why the very broken system is difficult to navigate, and why many who suffer from mental illness struggle to get out.

From court dates to group therapy, the film documents Miami’s community experiment for solving the mental health crisis, where incarceration becomes the last resort, and everyone from the police to prosecutors works together to support the notion that “recovery is possible.”

According to government data, in 2018, 47 million Americans experienced some form of mental illness. And a person in the midst of a mental health crisis is far more likely to encounter police than get medical help.

As a result, two million people with mental illness are booked into jails each year, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Miami-Dade’s program illustrates that a better way is possible, one in which all of society benefits.

Collaborative Criminal Justice Creates Cultural Shift

Introduction to Jail Diversion Program participant Charlie Gonzalez, whose case serves as an example of how far the program has come in terms of allowing felony offenses. The explanation that the Criminal Mental Health Project is a collaborative criminal justice system in which all sides work together, including members of the community.

Embedded in Miami-Dade’s Gerstein Courthouse, "The Definition Of Insanity" reveals the machinations of the justice system, from staffing in judge’s chambers to the courtrooms themselves, where several CMHP clients are introduced.

The film follows them through the program, which is designed to lead to a successful “graduation,” where charges are dropped and clients gain independence from the court. A dedicated team works together in this struggle for recovery, including judges, peer counselors and treatment providers, as well as the clients themselves.

“We want people to be part of their own change,” says Leifman. ”We want to be able to give them the tools that they need so that they get the insight but they also learn that there’s a better way to live, there’s a better way to deal with their illness and you need to stay away from committing offenses.”

Photo credit: Courtesy of Found Object

Judge Steven Leifman encourages a man with a misdemeanor case and mental illness to participate in the jail diversion program. (undated photo)

As clients attend group therapy, seek jobs and check in with the court regularly throughout their supervision period, the documentary demonstrates the uniquely collaborative approach that fosters hope.

Although not everyone succeeds, the program is working. Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) policing helps officers recognize and respond to people with mental health issues without first resorting to arrest, de-escalating instead of escalating conflict.

Crisis Intervention Team Training Session

Habsi Kaba, Director of the Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) in Miami-Dade County, leads officers in a series of trainings to provide them with knowledge, tools, and resources to more effectively assess situations and interact with individuals who suffer from mental illnesses while on the job in order to better ensure their safety.

Since the jail diversion program project began, shootings have dropped dramatically and the number of arrests in Miami-Dade County has fallen from 118,000 to 56,000 a year.

The recidivism rate for felony and misdemeanor clients who complete the program is less than 25%, down from nearly 80% before the program. And jails are closing — saving the county $12 million a year — illustrating that the program is not only socially effective but cost-effective.

No Standard Operating Procedures for What We Do

Lawyer Alejandro Aristizábal and Judge Nushin Sayfie from the Miami-Dade Criminal Mental Health Project discuss the status of a new participant in the Jail Diversion Program, Trevor Dolan, and describe the pioneering nature of this program working in the complex intersection of law enforcement and the mental health system.

The epidemic of mental illness in America and its connection to the criminal justice system has been central to the work of filmmakers London and Sadoff. 

It is also deeply personal for Norman Ornstein and his family, who created the Matthew Harris Ornstein Memorial Foundation, named for Ornstein’s son who died in 2015 following a ten-year struggle with serious mental illness.

Ornstein met Judge Steven Leifman and was impressed by his work in Miami. “He was saving lives and saving money at the same time,” says Ornstein. “Although my son was not trapped in the horrors of the criminal justice system, so many people with serious mental illness are — the three largest facilities in America housing those with mental illness are the LA County Jail, the Cook County Jail and Rikers Island.”

Ornstein knew filmmaker Gabriel London and had been impressed with his earlier film, "The Mind of Mark DeFriest," which also explored the intersection of mental illness and criminal justice in Florida, and suggested a film on Leifman’s project.

Coincidentally, London had recently met Leifman at a panel for the earlier film. “I was completely wowed by his story of possibility in the mental health and criminal justice space, which contrasted with the tragedy of DeFriest’s prison story,” says London. “I started filming him on my cell phone as he spoke the day we met, and never shook the sense there should be a film. When Norm and his wife Judy later mentioned making a film about him, it felt right and fitting. It’s been a real privilege to work on this project, turning the grief over Matthew’s loss into purpose.”

Join the conversation on social media with #DefinitionofInsanityPBS.

Program Participant Trevor Faces Reality at Court Hearing

The latest court date for Jail Diversion Program participant Trevor Dolan. In a recent drug test, he tested positive for alcohol, which is a violation of the rules of the program. The judge reminds him that he is jeopardizing his place in the program and the reality of what is at stake should he continue down this path of relapse.

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A production of Found Object, LLC, in association with WETA Washington, D.C. The film is directed and produced by Gabriel London, and produced and written by Charlie Sadoff. The film is edited by Nick Clark and narrated by Rob Reiner. The Associate Producer is Eddie Del Carmen with music by Tony Morales. Dalton Delan and John F. Wilson are the WETA Executive Producers


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