Florida’s Miami-Dade County is home to the highest rate of serious mental illness for any urban area in the United States, by some counts.
But public defenders there say one of the county’s judges doesn’t take the issue seriously, alleging that he spoke dismissively of the challenge mental illness poses for many defendants.
“I don’t buy it,” lawyers recall Judge Michael Barket telling them over doughnuts in his chambers after one of them discussed the high rates of issues such as mental illness and substance abuse among her often-impoverished clients.
Now the Miami-Dade County Public Defender’s Office wants the judge kicked off cases. The office says his attitude compromises his ability to give clients in six of their cases fair rulings.
The judge’s comments have drawn concern in a county that has worked hard to change its approach to a large population of mentally ill defendants by finding them treatment when possible rather than sending them to jail. About 17 percent of the Miami-Dade County Jail’s inmates have serious mental health problems, such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and major depression, according to the county’s court. It’s a nationwide issue, too, with the mentally ill consistently overrepresented among defendants.
Barket told lawyers that he “thinks many of our clients’ problems with mental illness, drug and alcohol addiction, and homelessness could be fixed if they put forth the effort,” Assistant Public Defender Marissa Reichel wrote in a sworn affidavit. The judge had invited the attorneys into his chambers for breakfast on June 6, Reichel wrote.
After she noted how common these issues are among her clients, Reichel recounts in the affidavit, Barket said he didn’t “buy it” and pointed to his successful family members as examples of people who had “come to this country with nothing” and worked to improve their situation.
Reichel wrote that she told Barket, “Many public defender clients are not as fortunate and are unable to do that, and the judge’s girlfriend and father are exceptions rather than the rule.” But Barket stuck to his position, she and other public defenders present recalled.
“In this case, this court’s comments denigrating patients who suffer from mental illness more than suggests an unfavorable opinion of them,” another assistant public defender, Natahly Seoane-Soler, said in her statement.
Barket indicated this week that he will not recuse himself from one of the cases the public defender’s office requested that he step aside from, the Miami Herald reported. The other five recusal requests are still under consideration. Miami-Dade public defender Carlos Martinez said in a statement to The Washington Post that “views on mental illness, substance use and lack of wealth can negatively impact clients experiencing those conditions, and their perceptions of fairness.”
The judge declined to comment through court spokeswoman Eunice Sigler. Sigler said judicial ethics rules prohibit judges from discussing pending cases.
Another judge in Miami-Dade has been a strong advocate for getting mentally ill and often poor or homeless defendants help rather than locking them up. Barket’s fellow judge Steve Leifman — who declined to comment to The Washington Post, citing the same ethics rule on talking about ongoing cases — spearheaded the Criminal Mental Health Project in Florida’s 11th Judicial Circuit, which serves Miami-Dade. The program lessens or altogether drops certain defendants’ charges if they stick to a treatment regimen. A paper in American Criminal Law Review held up Miami as a model for “solving the problem of criminalizing the mentally ill.” And Barket’s court system has a long-standing requirement that new judges receive five hours of training on mental health
Leifman was also crucial in efforts to increase mental illness training for police officers and to put a defunct state hospital for mentally ill defendants back into service with renovations, according to the Miami Herald. He’s emphasized the need for the criminal justice system to address mental health.
“The idea is to take this really acutely ill population and instead of just kicking them to the curb once we’ve adjudicated their case, we can gently and slowly reintegrate them back into the community in recovery, with all the support and case management systems that they need for recovery,” Leifman told a local news site in March.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness, which has a branch in Miami-Dade, criticized Barket’s comments Friday. Hannah Wesolowski, the organization’s acting national director of advocacy and public policy, echoed Leifman’s focus on diverting defendants toward treatment.
“In this case, the judge’s prejudice and inability to recognize the impact that mental illness and substance use conditions play on individuals coming before him, can devastate their lives,” Wesolowski said about Barket in a statement to The Post.