Dayton signs another bill to move mentally ill offenders out of jail faster

Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton has signed another bill designed to speed the at-times painstakingly slow process of moving severely mentally ill people out of jail and into the proper care.

Authored by Sen. Julianne Ortman (R-Chanhassen) and Rep. Debra Hilstrom (DFL-Brooklyn Center), the new law will combine two redundant psychiatric evaluations that can delay the mental health commitment process. The bill won't solve all the problems with Minnesota's troubled civil commitment system, but it will help some get to treatment faster, says Judge Jay Quam, who previously presided over commitment court in Hennepin County.

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Civil commitment leaves Hennepin County offenders languishing

"It pretty effectively addresses one part of the problem," says Quam.

We exposed the dysfunctions in Minnesota's civil commitment system in our March 2012 investigation, "Unfit for Trial," which found severely mentally ill offenders frequently sit in jail for weeks or months waiting for treatment, often leaving in worse condition than when they arrived.

In one example, a man named Ronald Brewer was arrested for possession of Oxycodone pills. Brewer suffered from major depressive disorder, and was ultimately found unfit to face charges, but spent five months in solitary confinement before he was transferred to a hospital, court records show.

At the time of our initial reporting, Quam and others opined about the unnecessary redundancy of the two psychiatric evaluations. From the feature:

"Right now, it's a sequential process," says [Attorney Doug] McGuire. "They have to go through the criminal process until they get to a point where the criminal process says, 'We can't deal with you anymore'.... You end up with an individual that--if they end up refusing medications, which they can do very easily if they're not under commitment--they end up coming to the mental health court so psychiatrically decompensated that it takes a long time for them to get back."

The new law is one of several measures the Legislature is taking to address these problems. Dayton signed another law last May ordering the state to move mentally ill offenders out of jail within 48 hours of being civilly committed by a judge.

Quam says he's hopeful about another measure moving through the Senate right now that would create a new hub in the Twin Cities designed to assess and provide resources for offenders with severe mental illnesses. Instead of bringing them to jail, police could admit these mentally ill people to the facility, where they would get proper care immediately.

"This operates on the premise that the best way to keep people from languishing in jail is to prevent them from being there in the first place," says Quam.