KARE 11 Investigates: Legislators failing to reform broken juvenile competency system
A teen accused of shooting a man in the head was found incompetent to stand trial, then let go. He’s now charged with shooting another man in the head.
Hawa Lobeh fears leaving her apartment after what happened to her in February.
A 16-year-old boy pointed a gun at her in her apartment’s parking lot, then demanded her purse and her car as she begged him not to shoot.
Since then, she’s been unable to work because of the trauma and unable to afford repairs on the car after the teen crashed it into a snowbank. She thought she was going to die that day.
“It changed everything,” she said.
And yet, “Police said, ‘You are the lucky one,’’ she said.
Lucky because an hour earlier, police believe the same teen shot a man in the head outside of a nearby market, nearly killing him.
That man is still in the hospital.
Members of the anti-violence nonprofit Minnesota Acts Now were there and worked to save the victim’s life.
“We did not think that he would survive that shooting,” said Bishop Harding Smith, who leads Minnesota Acts Now. “What happened that day never should’ve happened.”
Only eight months earlier, the teen was accused of shooting another victim in the head at a Brooklyn Park gas station.
(Editor’s note: KARE 11 generally does not name juveniles charged with crimes)
In that case, the teen, who already faced more than a dozen other crimes, was found mentally incompetent to stand trial due to his mental health and low cognitive functioning.
His shooting case was suspended, and he was then released to his mother, court records show. At the same time, more than a dozen misdemeanor charges were dismissed.
He became a gap case, falling through a loophole in Minnesota law that lets juvenile suspects charged with crimes go free without required mental health treatment or supervision.
There are roughly 300 kids each year found incompetent to stand trial, according to state court data.
With no program to restore kids to competency, Ramsey County Judge JaPaul Harris said his and other judges’ hands are tied in those cases.
He worries about the public’s safety due to gap cases.
“We cannot do anything with that case until that kid reaches competency,” he said.
FAILURE TO ACT
Last year legislators passed significant reforms on adult gap cases following KARE 11’s reporting, including spending millions of dollars to supervise and treat suspects found incompetent to stand trial.
“This is going to save lives. Not a life, but lives,” Republican Rep. Tony Albright, who helped spearhead the reforms, said at the time.
Legislators said they hoped to turn their attention to the broken juvenile competency system this year, but a bill was never even drafted.
A task force was meeting, but its members say they are on hiatus with no recommendations made. Their work has been made more difficult by the lack of mental health resources for kids accused of violence, members said.
With the legislative session ending on May 22, it appears nothing will be done.
That’s a failure to act, said Bishop Smith.
“We release them to the community but at the same time we’re not giving them the help they need,” Smith said. “Where’s the safety net?”
JUDGES’ HANDS TIED
KARE 11 reported on juvenile gap cases last year, finding:
- Since the law requires cases to be suspended – even when they involve violent crimes – judges can’t order juveniles to be held in detention or released under law enforcement supervision.
- Judges’ hands are also tied in these cases because they have no authority to order children to get treatment to restore them to competence.
- Even if they did have that power, there are no competency restoration programs in Minnesota tailored to juveniles.
In one case, a mentally ill teen who was charged with two armed robberies, found incompetent to stand trial for those crimes, and then let go to his grandmother instead of secure treatment.
“If he’s incompetent, where’s the help at? I can’t help him,” she said.
The teen would run away and go on a violent crime spree, including breaking into an elderly woman’s home, beating her in the head and robbing her.
RELEASED WITHOUT SUPERVISION
The 16-year-old now charged twice with shooting two different people in the head in Brooklyn Park was let go following the first shooting without so much as GPS monitoring, court records show.
He canceled or failed to attend the required psychological evaluations. There’s no record he received treatment.
He’s being held in the Hennepin County juvenile detention center as hearings are underway to determine his competency. If he’s found incompetent, there’s a chance he could again be let go.
Hennepin County Attorney Mary Moriarty has a new policy that indicates her office will generally not challenge it when the court finds a youth incompetent.
Her office did not respond to repeated requests to talk about the issue.
The possibility of the teen’s release terrifies Hawa Lobeh after she was carjacked.
“The fear is in me,” she said. “When I go to bed, sometimes I see people with guns shooting me.”