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House panel OKs bill aiming to close ‘treatment gap’ for those found incompetent to stand trial

Minnesota law says when someone is arrested for all but the most serious crimes, but is deemed incompetent to stand trial, they must be released.

However, there is no way to ensure that person gets needed mental health care to get better and be reestablished into the community.

That’s a serious public safety issue, says Rep. Heather Edelson (DFL-Edina), who sponsors HF2725 to fix this “treatment gap.”

The House Judiciary Finance and Civil Law Committee on Thursday approved the bill on a 10-6 party-line vote and sent it to the House Public Safety and Criminal Justice Reform Finance and Policy Committee. There is no Senate companion.

Under current law, if a person is found to be incompetent, misdemeanor criminal charges must be dismissed. Proceedings in felony and gross misdemeanor cases must be paused to see if the person becomes competent, but there is no formal procedure to restore the person to competence.

The bill would:

  • establish a process for restoring a person to competency;
  • form guidelines for continued supervision of individuals found to be incompetent; and
  • create “forensic navigators” to work with defendants in the competency process and develop plans to connect defendants to appropriate services.

The defense of not guilty by reason of mental disease or defect commonly known as the “insanity defense” is not addressed by the bill.

The bill would incorporate the consensus recommendations issued by the Community Competency Restoration Task Force created by the Legislature in 2019.

Sue Abderholden, executive director of National Alliance on Mental Illness Minnesota, led the task force. She said the bill aims to fix the existing treatment gap caused by a lack of resources and authority at both the state and county level.

“Most of the people who have been deemed incompetent are never committed [to treatment programs],” she said.

The courts have limited power to hold or supervise a person who has been found to be incompetent, said Assistant Ramsey County Attorney Tim Carey.

And because mental health facilities have limited space, he said some individuals charged with a crime and found to be incompetent have been released without being connected to mental health or other social services and with little or no supervision.

“This bill would be a complete overhaul and a large-scale investment into the mental health infrastructure in the state, which has been lacking for some time,” he said.

Republican concerns include whether putting obligations on the court system is the right way to solve the treatment gap problem.

“We’re turning the courts into a social service agency,” said Rep. Peggy Scott (R-Andover), who believes these issues should be dealt with by the Department of Human Services.

Other concerns included the unknown cost, although Edelson said a fiscal note is forthcoming.

Rep. Brian Johnson (R-Cambridge) estimated the annual costs would be $1 billion to $1.5 billion, and there would be additional costs if related legislation became law that would fund construction of several new mental health facilities in the state.

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