Hennepin County court gap cycles out mentally ill offenders

The bailiff steps into the courtroom, a handcuffed man in tow. The prisoner's name is Hassen Ahmed, a 34-year-old whose wild, rapidly whitening hair gives him the appearance of a much older man.

The nature of Ahmed's case is unusual, as the prosecution and defense agree on almost everything. Ahmed is severely mentally ill. That fact has been established by a court psychiatrist, who determined that Ahmed was not competent to face criminal charges. That's why Ahmed was transferred to Hennepin County's mental health court. The question that will be debated today: Just how mentally ill is he?

According to the Hennepin County Attorney's Office, Ahmed is sick enough to be civilly committed to a state hospital. To support this, the prosecutor calls Dr. Ian Heath, who has treated Ahmed at the Hennepin County Medical Center, to testify over the courtroom's speakerphone.

"My working diagnosis," says Heath's disembodied voice, "is that of schizophrenia, paranoid-type."

Heath elaborates: Ahmed has been arrested several times now for trespassing at the Salvation Army's Harbor Lights homeless shelter in downtown Minneapolis while trying to find his family, a wife and three girls he calls "the triplets." But there is no wife, and there are no triplets. It's merely the tragic manifestation of Ahmed's mental illness. This is the second time in two months that Ahmed has been in the same courtroom for the same reason.

See also: Civil commitment leaves Hennepin County offenders languishing

At the end of the trial, when the judge asks Ahmed if wants to comment, he musters up a single phrase: "I want to get back to my wife and children."

In the end, the prosecution loses the case. Though Ahmed is clearly in need of help, he isn't posing a danger to himself or others and doesn't meet the state's criteria for commitment. In his decision, Judge Jay Quam couldn't help but opine about the injustice.

"This case vividly illustrates the gap between the standard for incompetency in a criminal case and the standard for commitment as a mentally ill person," writes Quam. "Respondent Hassen Ahmed has again fallen through that gap."

Ahmed is an outlier. He's one of many mentally ill offenders in Hennepin County who are found incompetent to be tried criminally, but don't fit the criteria for civil commitment, and therefore can't receive state-funded treatment. If the charges don't amount to a felony, they are simply dropped, and the defendant is free to leave custody.

The most extreme example of this problem is a man named Edgar Coleman. Coleman believes that since the University of Minnesota is a public institution, he has the right to live on its campus. For more than 10 years now, he has been the scourge of university police.

"We get a lot of complaints about him," says Chuck Miner, deputy chief for the university police. "Calls from members of the university community that he's panhandling or taking food from buffet tables at meetings and conferences."

All told, Coleman has been arrested or cited more than 150 times, according to police records. Years ago, doctors at Hennepin County Medical Center tried to treat Coleman, says Philip Krasowski, a mental health nurse at HCMC. But all of their efforts were futile, and since his crimes never rise above minor offenses, Coleman is just let loose to do it again.

"When he's arrested and it's a public document, we're asked if we can do anything, and I have to say, 'No,'" says Krasowski. "I know when I've met my match. I'm like the pitcher that throws these fluff balls, and he just hits them out of the park."

Krasowski believes this gap is a problem. Unfortunately, with the current law, there's nothing he or the courts can do about it.

"The Legislature needs to take a look at some of the criteria, particularly for offenders or repeat offenders, so they're not continually going through the system," says Krasowski. "It's awfully awkward for a judge to, based on the current law, release someone when the person says they are going to commit a crime."

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