A new law that will streamline the screening process for mentally ill jail inmates could drastically shrink the amount of time they spend in Minnesota jails without treatment.

Advocates say the move is a vitally important step in reforming how the state deals with its mentally ill, starting with those whose symptoms are so acute that they can result in arrest — or worse.

“The sad truth is that the local jails are the largest mental health facilities in the state of Minnesota,” said Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek, who estimates that up to 30 percent of the 40,000 inmates booked into his jail annually suffer from mental illness. It’s a conservative estimate, he said, adding that his colleagues across the country have much higher numbers.

Now, those with the most severe symptoms could get out of the jails and into mental health facilities faster. Sen. Julianne Ortman, R-Chanhassen, and Rep. Debra Hilstrom, DFL-Brooklyn Center, have teamed up on a bill that combines two separate screening processes used to determine whether an inmate can competently stand trial and whether they should be committed to a mental health facility. Under the existing system, if a prosecutor or defense attorney doubts an inmate is competent, a “Rule 20” evaluation is triggered. A motion to civilly commit that inmate requires a separate screening. The two screenings can often be set weeks apart, lengthening the time a mentally ill inmate goes without proper treatment.

The new law, which goes into effect Aug. 1, could save time as well as money.

“Time is the enemy of people in mental health crisis,” said Hennepin County District Judge Jay Quam, a key leader in efforts to reform the state system. “Anything we can do to speed up that process is a good thing, and this bill helps make that possible.”

Quam traveled to Washington this week to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights. He urged federal lawmakers to pass legislation that would strengthen mental health programs across the country and make amends for conditions that have devastated families and shattered lives. Quam shared stories of a Minnesota inmate who stabbed himself in both eyes with a pencil, another who hanged herself in her cell and another who broke his neck after repeatedly smashing his head into a cell toilet.

The Justice and Mental Health Collaboration Act, sponsored by U.S. Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., would authorize $40 million to extend funding for mental health courts for five years, create law enforcement crisis intervention teams and offer veterans better screening for mental health problems that stem from trauma or chemical dependency.

The newly passed state legislation is the most recent attempt to speed the transition of the mentally ill to treatment facilities, but it’s a small step compared to the work left to be done, said Sue Abderholden, executive director of the Minnesota chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. A measure that is part of the state’s proposed supplemental budget bill would fund crisis teams and family education specialists to get mentally ill people to receive treatment and keep them out of jail.

“I kind of liken it to saying you wouldn’t call 911 to say you’re having chest pains and they say, ‘Well, wait until it’s a full-blown heart attack,’ ” Abderholden said. “With someone who’s experiencing symptoms, we want to get them into treatment as quickly as possible.”


Staff writer Corey Mitchell contributed to this report.