One of the problems downtown Minneapolis boosters point to in attracting people to downtown is the public perception that the area is plagued by drugs and crime. That image is one that civic boosters are hoping to combat with the increased use of civil commitments—involuntary court-ordered treatment for individuals who are chemically dependent or suffer from mental illness—to curb crime.
One such booster is Joe Tamburino, a downtown Minneapolis resident who is also a criminal defense attorney. “[Every other county] is doing civil commitments. But Hennepin County, we’re not committing anyone,” said a frustrated Tamburino at a meeting at the headquarters of Ryan Companies, located blocks from U.S. Bank Stadium, in late September.
“You don’t have to walk far from here to see people who are obviously a danger to themselves and others, and who are obviously not in the right state of mind and are chronically chemically dependent,” said Tamburino.
But the recent brutal killing of a Loring Park cashier, performer and community organizer by someone who was once civilly committed has people wondering if civil commitments actually improve public safety. It appears they do not work for those who are dependent on drugs or have sexually harmed others. And it is not entirely clear if they work on those who have a mental illness.
The process for involuntary commitment
A person can be involuntarily committed, that is, forced into treatment at a hospital for having a mental illness or addiction to drugs, if they are deemed to be a danger to themselves or others. Minnesota’s process is called the Minnesota Commitment Act and was established in 1982, replacing previous versions of the law.
Anyone can ask the courts to commit someone to mental health or substance abuse treatment. But before the courts can decide, the county needs to conduct a pre-petition screening. In this step, doctors and psychologists, among other hospital staff, evaluate a person’s health, income and lifestyle to determine if they need to be civilly committed. It can also start with a 72-hour hold, where a health or police officer determines someone will harm themselves or others because they have a mental illness or drug addiction.
Once someone asks the courts to commit someone by petition, the courts will appoint a psychologist or psychiatrist to evaluate the person. The hearing, which can take place up to 44 days after the petition is filed, involves the county attorney proving why a person needs to be committed. The person who is the subject of commitment also has the right to a lawyer and to prove why they should not be committed.
When someone is committed, they can get remanded to a hospital’s psychiatric ward. People with more serious illnesses can get remanded to the Anoka Metro Regional Treatment Center just north of downtown Anoka, or the Minnesota Security Hospital in St. Peter. Those committed because they have sexually harmed others as a result of a mental illness are remanded to the Minnesota Sex Offender program in Moose Lake.
Commitments do not usually last more than six months and can be continued for up to 12 months. As of October, courts across the state have committed a total of 83,795 people in the past decade. Of those committed, 26 percent remain committed for up to 18 months. An additional 16 percent are committed for more than 18 months. The data does not show who is released from commitment, only to be committed again sometime later.
Of the 83,795 committed, 1,156 people have been committed to either the Anoka or St. Peter facilities. About half of the 1,156 who were committed to Anoka or St. Peter— 603 — were committed because they had some form of mental illness. Just over half of that number were committed because they were also a danger to either themselves or others. An additional 80 were committed because they had a chemical dependency.
By county, Hennepin has the most commitments at over 26,000. Ramsey had the second-most commitments at over 22,000. Cottonwood, Grant, Red Lake, and Traverse counties in western Minnesota had five commitments each. One of those committed was Taylor Justin Schulz, who beat Loring Park shopkeeper Robert Skafte to death on December 8.
Do commitments rehabilitate?
It’s not clear if anyone has studied how civil commitments affect the mental health of Minnesotans. But according to Sue Abderholden, who is the executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness Minnesota chapter, the civil commitment process needs to change.
Schulz, the person who beat Loring Park shopkeeper Robert Skafte to death, was civilly committed in 2021, after experiencing schizoaffective disorder and psychosis. He was eventually released. “Commitments don’t last forever,” said Abderholden. “Once the person is doing well, that commitment goes away.”
After his release, Schulz moved into a Loring Park apartment. It’s unclear if he was receiving county services or if he had a job, though neighbors say he’d complained about the Oak Grove Grocery not accepting food stamps. Neighbors and community members also say Schulz had shoplifted from the store and assaulted children and animals living in his Loring Park apartment building. Now, he faces charges, and perhaps recommitment, for killing Skafte.
Studies show civil commitments do not appear to work well to rehabilitate those who have caused sexual harm. A 2014 study published in the “Journal of Criminal Justice” on Minnesota inmates who were civilly committed for sexually harming others found about 28 percent of them would be convicted again for a similar offense if they were released. About a third of those released would be convicted within four years of release. The study recommended implementing early intervention techniques to reduce recidivism.
Abderholden believes that county attorneys need to implement a so-called early warning system for those who show signs of mental illness. “We’re waiting until they get very, very sick. [The county attorneys say] if they’re not willing to go to treatment voluntarily, there’s nothing we can do. Which is true,” said Abderholden.
“One thing [counties can do is] when [someone’s] symptoms are coming back, they can send someone out. It could be a peer specialist, mental health practitioner—they could go out and try to engage the person in treatment for up to 90 days.”
Abderholden says counties across the state are not doing this for the most part because they lack funding. NAMI plans to lobby the state legislature for funding to support the early intervention program this session, which begins in February. Abderholden also argues the state needs to expand its programs that help those who have mental illnesses or chemical dependency so those who rely on those programs are less likely to relapse.
The Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development also received about $5 million this past session to expand its Vocational Rehabilitation Services program, which provides employment support services for those who have a mental illness, over the next two years. However, the amount from the legislature will be cut back to $2.55 million in 2026, which could mean DEED may have to make cuts to the program.