Civil commitment overhaul moves to Senate floor

Civil commitment overhaul moves to Senate floor
Sen. Julianne Ortman, left, introduced the bill. Hennepin County Judge Jay Quam testified in favor.

Two bills designed to reduce the amount of time mentally ill offenders spend in jail awaiting treatment passed a Senate committee last week, and will now head to the floor.

One of the bills would mandate that the Department of Human Services transfer the offender out of jail within 48 hours of a judge issuing a civil commitment order; the other would streamline the path to commitment, combining the criminal and civil processes.

"Members, we set the policy," said bill author Sen. Julianne Ortman, R-Chanhassen, at Thursday's hearing. "It's not right for folks that are innocent to be sitting in our jail waiting for treatment and waiting through processes that I think are unnecessarily burdensome."

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Similar bills have also been introduced in the House. It's a complicated issue, so here's a quick breakdown of how the civil commitment process is supposed to work:

  • People with severe mental illness often don't enter the county system until they are arrested. The crime is frequently minor and related to the person's illness, like trespassing or a low-level drug charge.
  • Once in jail, someone must identify the inmate as potentially mentally ill and file a petition for a competency evaluation. Usually the public defender is in a position to notice this first.
  • If deemed incompetent to stand trial, the offender is sent to the civil commitment court. The charges are either suspended or dropped.
  • The court now assigns a new attorney to represent the person, and the civil proceedings begin. If a judge ultimately decides civil commitment is appropriate, the person is ordered to a treatment facility. 

As we documented in our March 2012 cover story, "Unfit for Trial," the system can stall almost every step of the way, and the mentally ill person must sit in jail and wait -- at times for months on end -- to receive treatment.

In Hennepin County, the problem has been compounded by a sharp rise in the number of people who are found incompetent in the criminal court and transferred to mental health commitment court.

The consequences can be dire for the patient and jail staff. The guards are tasked with trying to control mentally ill inmates who resist them, which leads to attacks. Often untreated and in a solitary cell, offenders can decompensate by the time they finally get help, sometimes leaving in worse condition than when they came in.

"Time is really the enemy of those with mental illness," Hennepin County Judge Quam testified Thursday. "Every day that goes by, especially in a distressed situation like jail, is a day where someone typically gets worse.... And what's extremely unfortunate is that some folks get worse and they can't get better. They reach a point of no return."

Representatives from the National Alliance for Mental Illness and the Minnesota Sheriff's Association also testified in favor of the bills. They both passed the committee with bipartisan support.

"Senator Ortman's bill is a great start," said Sen. Barb Goodwin, D-Columbia Heights. "But we have to do so much more and we have to be committed to it, because if we're not, these folks are just going to end up dying or being out on the street."

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