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KARE 11 Investigates: Minnesota House votes to close ‘The GAP’

Sweeping multi-million-dollar plan to treat and supervise criminal defendants found incompetent to stand trial clears House, but still must pass state Senate.

ST PAUL, Minn. — With bipartisan support, the Minnesota House has passed a major bill aimed at closing loopholes that allow accused criminals found mentally incompetent to stand trial to be released into the community without adequate treatment or supervision.

In a series of reports over the past year, KARE 11 Investigates documented how gaps in current legal and mental health systems failed to adequately treat defendants with mental illness – and failed to protect the public from new crimes, including rapes, violent assaults, and murders.

The reform bill would appropriate more than $32 million over the next two years to launch the program.

It calls for creation of new “competency restoration” programs, establishes new “forensic navigator” positions to help defendants coordinate care and court requirements, and it gives criminal court judges additional authority to order continued supervision for defendants who are still incompetent.

KARE 11’s reports highlighted cases in which judges said that once an accused criminal was found incompetent to stand trial, under current law they lost control. If mental health officials decided defendants no longer needed hospital-level mental health care, they could be released into the community even if they were still incompetent to stand trial.

RELATED: KARE 11 Investigates: Special Report – The GAP

“Judges are pleading with us to do something,” said bill sponsor DFL Rep. Heather Edelson, “we have county attorneys here begging us - please do something!”

On hand for the vote Wednesday was Joseph Pfeifer St. James. His husband was killed last year when a man with mental illness, found incompetent to stand trial in an assault and carjacking case – yet released from a hospital – ran him down with an SUV. Christopher Rice told police he heard voices telling him to do it.

Paul Pfeifer was one of at least four victims in the past two years who died at the hands of a person released into the community while still mentally incompetent to stand trial on a prior criminal charge.

“This is not a simple bill, nor is it perfect, but it is necessary,” said GOP Rep. Tony Albright, one of the authors.

The bill passed the House by a vote of 102 to 31.

With just 11 days remaining in this year’s legislative session, the reform bill still needs approval in the state Senate where some members have questioned its price tag.

Paul Pfeifer’s husband says cost shouldn’t stand in the way of saving innocent lives.

“If you’re going to say it’s too expensive, give me a number – we can’t spend more than this,” Joseph said as he issued this challenge to lawmakers.  “Own it. Go on TV, say the number out loud and say that certain people’s intrinsic value is only worth up to this number!”

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