‘It’s dangerous’: Author of ’48-hour law’ calls on state to do more to respond to mental health crisis in jails

Repeated and ongoing violations of Minnesota’s “48-hour law” have leaders at the Minnesota Department of Human Services (DHS) facing increasing questions about what the agency is doing to move people with mental illnesses out of county jails.

Inmates committed to the custody of DHS have spent weeks and even months waiting in jail to be transferred to a state hospital, according to a recent 5 INVESTIGATES review of court records.

DHS confirms 64 people are currently waiting behind bars despite orders to move them into treatment.

Now, former DFL State Representative Debra Hilstrom, the chief author of the 48-hour law, is among those asking why.

“Clearly, there’s a bed shortage because otherwise, they wouldn’t be sitting there,” Hilstrom said. “Why are they not enough beds? And what are you doing to ensure that there are enough beds in the future?”

In response to recent criticism from judges, DHS officials cited increasing referrals, staffing shortages, and the impacts of COVID-19 as reasons for the agency’s inability to comply with the law.

Dr. KyleeAnn Stevens, executive medical director for behavioral health at DHS, reiterated some of those points in a statement to 5 INVESTIGATES Monday.

“From its inception, the 48-hour law has presented tremendous challenges for DHS-operated psychiatric facilities. Priority admissions have more than tripled since the first full year of the law’s implementation, and we expect the number of referrals to continue rising,” Stevens said. “Our ongoing difficulty under the 48-hour law has been compounded by chronic staffing shortages that have hampered the entire healthcare sector for more than two years.”

In response to recent lawsuits, DHS lawyers and even some mental health advocates have called the 48-hour law “unrealistic” and “unfair.”

Nine years after her legislation passed with bipartisan support, Hilstrom makes no apologies.

“Just because it’s hard to do doesn’t mean it isn’t the right thing to do,” Hilstrom said. “To just say ‘we can’t do it’ and then not propose anything in the alternative doesn’t take care of the problem. And it’s still a problem today, and it’s still going be a problem tomorrow until people say this is how you solve it.”

If you’re using the KSTP app, you can watch the full report here.