Committee looks at mental health costs in the justice system


Mental health concerns within the state’s justice system have long been a concern, but with treatment costs increasing, new options need to be viewed.

At an informational hearing, the House Civil Justice Committee heard from state and local corrections personnel about the costs and successes of current methods, and other ways to treat persons behind bars or ways to keep those with a mental health issue out of the system. (Watch Part I, Part II)

According to the Department of Corrections, approximately 7 percent of inmates have a major mental illness, such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. Nanette Larson, director of the department’s health services unit, said 60 percent of adult females, 25 percent of adult males and 50 percent of juvenile males are receiving mental health assistance via services of staff or by taking medication. She said each dollar spent on addiction treatment saves $7 in averted future social costs related to the treatment of untreated addiction.

To not get services early and let people end up in the criminal justice system is backwards, said Sue Abderholden, executive director of NAMI Minnesota. “Instead, why didn’t we do that in the first place?”

There are ways to help some offenders with mental health issues stay out of prison.

For example, mental health courts in Hennepin and Ramsey counties allow the system to provide currently existing resources to low-level offenders via court-supervised treatment, rather than sending them to prison.

Richard Hopper, presiding judge for Hennepin County’s Mental Health Court, spoke of a young man with mental illness that got involved with gangs and was stealing cars. Instead of prison, the offender got help, and now has a job, gotten married and is raising a family. “This is probably one of the most rewarding jobs I’ve had,” Hopper said.

Hennepin County now has 250-300 people under mental health court supervision; Ramsey County about 25. Because the program began in 2003, Hopper said long-term effects have yet to be established, but “results have been extremely promising.”

Other issues addressed by the committee include: mental health crisis response by law enforcement, dealing with veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and discharge planning for inmates with a mental illness.

There is an undeniable link between the mental health and criminal justice systems, said Rep. Larry Hosch (DFL-St. Joseph). “I hope this isn’t the last of these hearings.”