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. 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. 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. Produced and directed by Gabriel London, written and produced by Charlie Sadoff, and narrated by Rob Reiner, The Definition of Insanity premieres on Tuesday, April 14, 2020, 10:00-11:00 p.m. ET
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 London and Sadoff follow the ins and outs of CMHP “client” cases over 18 months, from the courtroom through community reintegration. 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. 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.
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 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.” 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. 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.
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.”