Dayton signs law to move mentally ill offenders out of jail quicker

The new law will move mentally ill offenders through the system quicker.
The new law will move mentally ill offenders through the system quicker.

As of July 1, the state will be legally obligated to move mentally ill offenders out of jails within 48 hours of a judge signing a civil commitment order.

Designed to move people with mental illnesses to treatment quicker, the measure was included in the Health and Human Services omnibus bill passed by the Legislature this session, which Gov. Mark Dayton signed into law Thursday.

"It seemed like the best interest of the inmate had been forgotten," says bill author Sen. Julianne Ortman, R-Chanhassen. "This will ensure that we don't have anyone languishing without treatment in jail."

Cover: Unfit for Trial
The In-Betweeners: Civil commitment loophole cycles out mentally ill offenders

A City Pages investigation published in March 2012 found that offenders with mental illnesses frequently get stuck in the civil commitment process on the way to treatment, in some cases spending months in jail before they are transferred to the appropriate care facility.

In one case, a man named Ronald Brewer was arrested for possession of Oxycodone pills in Minneapolis. Brewer suffered from major depressive disorder, and was ultimately found incompetent to stand trial, but spent five months in solitary confinement before he was transferred to a hospital, according to court records.

In another instance, Minneapolis man Eugene Gates was arrested for stealing a pack of cigarettes and a handful of 5-Hour Energy drinks from a convenience store. Though he had a history of severe mental illness, Gates spent three months in the Hennepin County jail before being brought to a treatment facility, court records show.

"You're innocent until proven guilty," says Ortman. "These people in these pre-adjudication facilities are innocent. You would never deny them care. We have to assume that they are innocent, right? So I think there was kind of a benign neglect."

When a mentally ill person is stuck in jail, the consequences can be dire for everyone in the system. Often without medication, the offender can decompensate and leave in worse condition than when he/she arrived. Deputies are also tasked with managing these inmates, some of whom are unpredictable or dangerous, which has led to attacks.

In 2011, Hennepin County Judge Jay Quam, who presides over civil commitment court, held a hearing with the Department of Human Services, where it was resolved patients would be transferred within seven days of commitment. If this was impossible, the department would have to provide an explanation.

But Ortman says 22 people languished in jail for more than 10 days after commitment last year.

"I know that DHS is working really hard to shorten that timeline, but without a mandate, they don't feel any time pressure at all," says Ortman. "And I think that's the biggest accomplishment here. Now DHS knows they have a legal restriction. And they also will then be subject to a lawsuit should one be filed."

Though Ortman's bill will help move mentally ill people to appropriate care faster, it won't solve the problem entirely. In many cases, including those of Brewer and Gates, much of the time spent in jail occurs before they even reach civil commitment court.

Ortman introduced another bill this session that would have helped move people through the system faster in some circumstances by combining redundant parts of the process. The bill passed the Senate, but didn't make it to a floor vote in the House. Ortman says she plans to push the bill again next session. She will also participate in a task force run by DHS to help address other problems facing the civil commitment process.

"I think we've just begun to scratch the surface," says Ortman. "There's so much more to do."

Read all of our civil commitment coverage:
Cover: Unfit for trial
The In-Betweeners: Civil commitment loophole cycles out mentally ill offenders
Hennepin County jailer died after attack by mentally ill, HIV-infected inmate
Mentally ill, dangerous patient languished for months without proper care
Judge presses Dept of Human Services on civil commitment troubles
Civil commitment overhaul moves to Senate floor
Law enforcement wants Legislature to take up mental health, gun violence

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