Criminal Justice Section member spotlight

In-depth profile and interview of an accomplished section member.

By Jeffrey J. Haun, PsyD

Shelia Brandt, PsyD, LP
Member Since: 1997
Location: St. Paul, Minnesota
Current Position/Affiliation: Legislative & Stakeholder Relations Director for the Minnesota Sex Offender Program (MSOP)

What is a Legislative and Stakeholder Relations Director?

I am responsible for designing my agency’s legislative agenda, including prioritizing policy initiative based upon best practices, program need, and political climate. I guide our policies through the legislative process by first vetting initial proposals through the commissioner of Health and Human Services and the Governor’s Office. I then solicit feedback from critical community stakeholders, including some unlikely allies. Finally, I meet with legislators to provide them with information about why policy changes are needed.

In addition to advocating on behalf of program policy needs, I serve as a bipartisan resource for any legislator or staffer in the Minnesota Legislature seeking assistance on developing other pieces of legislation related to sexual violence prevention, civil commitment, or changes to criminal law related to sexual offenses. I also provide education to the public and the media about these same issues. Employees will look forward to its arrival.

Did you have any mentors? How did he/she impact your professional life?

Dr. Robert Ax, was the Director of Training during my internship at the Federal Correctional Institution in Petersburg, Virginia. From the first day I met him, I was impressed with his tireless work on behalf of training new psychologists and adamant belief that psychologists need to speak out about public sector issues. He also imparted to me that psychologists should never be complacent about their expertise or keep their knowledge isolated within the halls of academia.

I observed him meld research, practice, and policy together every day in his work within the Bureau of Prisons. Working with him truly taught me that psychologists are uniquely positioned to both contribute to and make a difference in policy discussions related to mental health, criminal, and social justice issues. Another influential person was Dr. Pat DeLeon, who has far too many credentials to list here! I first met him on a trip to the APA Office in Washington. D.C., during my internship. He was the Chief of Staff for the late Senator Daniel Inouye from Hawai’i.

How did you become interested in legislative and policy work?

Aside from my clinical work, I have always had an interest in the political process, and how we, as citizen activists, can get involved in that process. I earned my doctorate (PsyD) in Clinical Psychology from the Minnesota School of Professional Psychology in 1998. All of my training experiences were within the public sector and generally with individuals experiencing severe mental illnesses concurrent with problems or placement within the criminal justice system. I knew it was at this intersection I felt the most passion and interest.

I quickly realized that while I enjoyed providing clinical services to these individuals, I wanted to become involved in revising and impacting the systems and public policy that provided the framework for such services. I traveled to the APA office in Washington, D.C., during my internship and learned that I could also be a “clinician activist,” that is to use my clinical expertise to impact mental health and social justice policies.

What do you find to be the most challenging aspect of your role?

Navigating the will of a legislator versus political will is the most difficult. When meeting with policy makers at all levels of the process, there is always the question of what the public will accept. Behind closed doors, many legislators understand the need for policy reform in sensitive areas such as mental health delivery within secure settings, and meaningful, empirically based reintegration resources. However, when confronted with presenting it to their caucuses or convincing their constituents, it quickly becomes much more complicated. So often policy proposals can become diluted, unfunded, or simply die as an idea until “another year.” This dynamic is not surprising, especially as the political climate has become more polarized.

In policy work, one can never lose sight that meaningful policy change occurs over years and information is often provided repeatedly in smaller “chunks,” for the non-clinical consumer. I find it’s been helpful to approach the process in a way similar to working with a client with a complicated clinical picture. For example, considering, where is the client at? What part of work is he/she capable of doing at this point or what is the priority? What will need to occur to help support the individual in moving forward with additional change?

What do you find most satisfying about your current role?

From a clinical standpoint, I love meeting with legislators, discussing the complicated interaction of mental health and criminal justice issues, and seeing the “light bulb go on,” or when they understand (e.g., risk perception versus actual risk) and ask, “How do we approach this differently?”

From a legislative standpoint, I continue to hold a deep respect for how our political process is designed. Although it doesn’t always function as designed, most elected officials, on both sides of the aisle, really do want to make a difference for those they represent.

What do you do to achieve satisfactory work-life balance?

As a mother of a teen, a tween, and a preschooler, life is pretty busy! I find to truly relax and I head outdoors; hiking, cross country skiing, camping, and cycling. Or as my husband would tell you, any place I cannot get Wi-Fi!