SHALIMAR — Okaloosa County has received assurances that this year it will finally get state money to fund a pilot program dedicated to gauging how effective mental health diversion centers can be.

Hopes are high an expenditure of $400,000 will help ease overcrowding at the county jail in the short term and possibly jump-start a new approach to mental health that could translate into big savings in several areas of local government.

County cOmmissioners hosted a workshop Tuesday to discuss what first steps are needed to begin to identify people with mental illness before they wind up in jail. The goal is to divert people who should not be incarcerated to places where they can get the help they need to live healthy lives free of entanglements with the legal system.

A key speaker at the meeting was County Judge Steve Leifman, a Miami official who for 20 years has been proving that spending money to care for the mentally ill rather than lock them away can actually save money.

Jails have become repositories for the mentally ill nationwide, Leifman said, and law enforcement officers the first responders are forced to face unstable people and take them into custody if necessary to protect the public.

“We have had no greater public policy failure than that of our mental health industry,” Leifman told the commissioners. “We end up wasting an unbelievable amount of money housing people with mental illness.”

Leifman said diversion programs in Miami-Dade County have been successful enough to allow the community to close one of its three jails.

That message was welcomed by a County Commission now considering how to deal with a serious jail overcrowding issue of its own. Discussions have already been initiated about adding on to the jail in Crestview.

Commissioners decided after hearing Leifman's presentation that a first step toward mental health diversion success would require the county to create what was termed a “central receiving facility” where law officers would bring arrested individuals to be assessed before they are taken to jail.

At the receiving facility decisions could be made — not by law officers but experts with “assessment tools” at their disposal — about whether to incarcerate or divert, according to retired Okaloosa County Judge Patt Maney, who has worked with veterans and mental health issues.

Before the central receiving facility can become a reality, though, commissioners will gather stakeholders from across the county to look at mental health issues and what it will take to make a diversion program a success. Deputy County Administrator Greg Kisela has been placed in charge of organizing the summit, which County Commissioner Carolyn Ketchel said would be seated before Oct. 1.

County and municipal officials and mental health experts will be joined at the summit by law enforcement officials. There was also discussion of inviting School District officials, teachers and doctors.

“We are going to attempt to bring all of the stakeholders together to see if we can agree on exactly what this is going to be,” Kisela said. “We all have different approaches, and there are differing opinions on whether the central facility needs to be in the south end or the north end connected with the jail.”

Okaloosa County was one of three Florida counties that in 2017 was awarded the pilot program to study the effectiveness of creating mental health diversion centers. State Rep. Mel Ponder has tried since that year to secure funding for the program.

Gov. Rick Scott vetoed funding in 2017 and 2018. This year the state Legislature approved $250,000 for the program, and Ponder said he is confident Gov. Ron DeSantis will sign the legislation.

Okaloosa County has pledged to put in $150,000 of its own to match the state funding.