The intersection of mental illness and the criminal justice system is at the heart of a series of new measures gaining wide support at the State Capitol, with sentencing changes and a new probation program under consideration.
One proposal would direct judges to order a neuropsychological evaluation before sentencing in cases where a defendant has had a stroke or brain injury. If that exam finds that the stroke or brain injury is responsible for a lack of impulse control, the judge could opt for less severe punishment than called for in sentencing guidelines.
“This is a case where we can see if justice should be tempered with mercy,” said Rep. Jeremy Munson, R-Lake Crystal, one of the measure’s leading sponsors. “We have to protect the public and enforce the criminal law. But if a defendant can be proven to lack impulse control, sentences can be adjusted to seek effective treatment where that is possible.”
For one Fergus Falls man who tearfully testified about his daughter’s ordeal at a House committee last week, the renewed debate represents more than a year of advocacy that included a 240-mile walk from Clay County’s courthouse to the Capitol late last session.
T.R. Barry was unable to persuade lawmakers to pass any legislation last year that would help people like his 30-year-old daughter, Cassondra Barry, but his efforts have sparked at least two proposals that are picking up fresh momentum this year, including Munson’s proposal, dubbed “Cassy’s Law.”
Barry’s daughter has struggled with drug addiction since age 15, which led to a massive stroke that damaged her brain and required one of her legs to be amputated. She is now sitting in a Clay County jail cell on assault charges stemming from incidents at a pair of detox centers and, later, an encounter with correctional staff.
Two measures being considered this session could affect how people like Barry’s daughter are sentenced and supervised in Minnesota.
“The mentally ill are not to be disposed of, but that’s what we do,” Barry said recently. “We lock them up and we forget about them. And that needs to end in our state.”
Rep. Carlos Mariani, D-St. Paul, chairman of the House Public Safety and Criminal Justice Reform Finance and Policy Committee, took testimony recently from Barry in support of another bill that would establish a pilot probation project to match people with mental illness with both a probation officer and a mental health professional to try to better diagnosis mental health problems and hasten access to treatment.
“I don’t think we’ve paid attention as much as we should have to this,” Mariani said. “I don’t think it’s totally new, but I think there is a new energy around awareness on this issue.”
Mariani described Barry’s experience as “the poster story for what can horribly go wrong repeatedly even when there is awareness.”
Lawmakers are also trying to create a grant program to train emergency responders on how to handle crisis situations with people with autism and adopt a screening program that would direct people suffering from mental or chemical health struggles to treatment instead of jail when appropriate.
The latter proposal was inspired by a collaboration between human services officials and jail staff in Blue Earth County, where social workers have been screening people before they are booked into jail to determine whether treatment is more appropriate.
Called the “Yellow Line Project,” the model matches people with social services before, not after, they are booked. In Blue Earth County, officials have seen 81 percent of those screened self-report mental health or chemical dependency problems, according to Angela Youngerberg, assistant human services director.
She said just 6 percent of those screened since the project started in 2015 have returned to jail. She said the county has also seen costs associated with the state hospital drop $200,000 annually and detox costs are down $100,000 a year.
“As much training as you try to give, the officer is still not a mental health practitioner,” said Rep. Jack Considine, D-Mankato, a former corrections officer who is sponsoring the bill. “And so it’s in everybody’s best interest to try to divert them before they get into the system.”