A complex solution for a crack in the judicial system

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Expect to hear a lot about public safety in the upcoming fall elections.

On the ballot: both houses of the Minnesota Legislature, the office of the governor and the state attorney general. Rising crime rates in the metro and beyond have already made the issue a campaign centerpiece for Republicans and the DFL. The rhetoric will only intensify as November 8 approaches.

The fate of mostly under-the-radar but critical criminal justice reform on the state Capitol this session will help voters separate candidates willing to provide the hard work needed for meaningful improvements from those who are not. That’s why Minnesota House bills HF 2725 and its Senate companion, SF 3395, are getting a lot of attention as lawmakers return from recess.

This reform package deserves to be adopted because it offers sensible remedies to close a fundamental flaw in the justice system involving the “restoration of powers”. A 2021 Legislative Task Force report explains:

“Persons charged with crimes have a constitutional and statutory right not to be tried if a judge determines that they are unable to understand the proceedings or participate in their defense due to mental illness or cognitive impairment. When a person is found to be incompetent, the prosecution of criminal charges must wait until the person becomes competent or the charges are dismissed.”

The crack in the system occurs when the loads are delayed or are dismissed. There should be clear pathways for “restoration” – meaning these citizens have access to the medical care, education and resources they so clearly need. But Minnesota and many other states have long lacked the detailed legal framework to ensure that happens.

Instead, the person deemed unfit “must be discharged for possible civil engagement”. Some meet this threshold and some do not because there is a mismatch between the thresholds of civil recognizance (essentially, detaining someone in a treatment facility) and fitness to stand trial.

Those who are not civilly bound can be left to seek treatment voluntarily. Nothing in the law obliges them to do so. The law also does not require “any state agency or local unit of government to provide treatment for skill restoration,” the task force said.

The consequences can include continued struggles with illness, finances, housing – circumstances in which these citizens become victims of crime themselves. Or, reoffend. A KARE-11 series on jurisdiction has raised troubling questions about whether that discrepancy allowed the man charged with mass shooting in 2021 at a clinic in Buffalo, Minnesota, to acquire a firearm.

The public interest in prevention is compelling. How many Minnesotans make it through the skill crack? The state chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) analyzed state court data. It estimates “1,800 cases with a verdict of incompetence on all charges in 2021 (827 felonies, 232 felonies, 740 misdemeanors) … if an average of 40% of these were committed, 60% would be cases difference and it’s about 1,080 people in a year.” A caveat: “The same individual may be declared incompetent more than once, so the number of results could be (and probably is) greater than the number of people.”

The proposed legislative fixes provide the legal framework that the state currently lacks. The package also notably includes a new team of “forensic navigators” who would work across the state to actively direct people in need of restoration to the care they need.

The reforms are the result of several years of work by the task force. Its members include representatives from NAMI, the Minnesota County Attorneys Association, the judiciary, medical providers as well as advocates for victims of crime.

The fact that legislative advocates are bipartisan inspires confidence in the ability of state legislators to rise above politics and get the tough stuff done. Skills restoration is complex and helps those who are too often “in the shadows,” as Rep. Tony Albright, R-Prior Lake puts it. Defenders include Rep. Heather Edelson, DFL-Edina, Sen. David Senjem, R-Rochester and Sen. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka.

The patches come at a significant price – around $116 million for the 2024-25 biennium, according to a tax memo. Proponents, however, dispute this and say additional information could reduce the cost.

Attempts to solve this problem cheaply should be rejected. A troubling crack in the justice system is a serious problem, which requires comprehensive solutions. Lawmakers should embrace the excellent work done by the task force and enact reforms reflecting its recommendations.