Minnesota lawmaker proposes task force to help those deemed incompetent to stand trial

March 07, 2019 10:51 PM

There's a growing number of people being found unfit to stand trial, according to state leaders. Many who are deemed incompetent to stand trial are transferred to state mental health facilities, including the Anoka Metro Regional Treatment Center.

“We've got a crisis in terms of where are we going to put these people,” said Sen. David Senjem. “They’re also taking up space for other patients that haven’t, frankly, committed criminal activity, but have needs as well.”

He's proposed a bill that would create a task force to look at the cause of the increase and potential solutions. It would be made up of about 25 people, including state leaders, law enforcement and mental health experts. The task force would look at data, programs that exist in other areas and case files.

“To get them out of these facilities and perhaps get them help, and, frankly, get them to reenter society,” said Sen. Senjem.

His office has been working with Sue Abderholden, the executive director of National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Minnesota.

“If we don’t go upstream, we're never going to address this issue,” she said. “So we need to look at what happened three months before someone ended up in jail so we can intervene much earlier and never have to worry about competency restoration.”

“It’s all of it,” she said. “Before jail, while in jail, when they leave jail, to make sure we're covering the entire scope.”

She said individuals who are deemed incompetent to stand trial have shown that they don’t understand the legal process and can’t contribute to their own defense.

“Our mental health system is more robust than it was a decade ago, we have more police trained on mental health issues than we did a decade ago, so why is it that we have more people in our jails who have a serious mental illness?” she said. “No one can answer that question.”

They hope it will lead to community-based competency restoration programs.

“We’ve got to simply try to create some things back in their own individual communities,” said Sen. Senjem.  “Supportive housing, some sort of a nurturing kind of experience back there, where we can get them competent and ready to stand trial.” 

The bill hasn’t had a hearing yet, but he said he’s confident it will pass.

“It will happen, it has to happen,” he said. “We can't afford for it not to happen.”

In December, the State Department of Human Services announced it would start phasing out its competency restoration program.

According to the state, it started as a 25-bed pilot program in 2006, but by 2018, DHS was seeing 120 patients per day, on average, at three facilities.

The state said in some cases, people were being held for too long. It planned to start discharging those who no longer needed in-patient care.

“I think that's where the problem really came in, because you can't send them back to the community for competency restoration when there are no community competency restoration programs,” said Abderholden.

We reached out to DHS late on Thursday for reaction to this bill, we have not heard back.

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Callan Gray

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