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Central Minnesota justice system, VA look to form partnerships David Unze

The St. Cloud City Attorney’s Office is working with Stearns County, the Veterans Administration and local justice system partners on a different way to meet the needs of veterans who commit certain crimes.

The goal is to have a protocol in place by the end of the year to get veterans the services they need to address the underlying problems that bring them to court. While it won’t be a diversion program, like one Washington County has established, it could lead to more favorable outcomes for veterans who commit misdemeanors and have an identifiable service-related cause linked to their conduct.

The push for a new way to handle certain veterans in the legal system comes as workers in the local VA and court systems are seeing more veterans. And it comes with a realization by some that traditional court processes aren’t doing enough to identify veterans, get them the specific help they need and acknowledge that their service may be an underlying cause of their criminal conduct.

“We have a duty as members of the criminal justice system to do the right thing for our veterans who suffer from traumatic brain injury, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, suicide ideation and a host of other issues that are the direct result of their service in the military,” said Renee Courtney, an assistant St. Cloud city attorney. She is a member of a committee that’s been studying the topic for several months.

A subcommittee was established last week after several members went to Stillwater to learn how Washington County is addressing the issue. While the specifics of its protocol will be established over the next several months, it is likely to borrow from elements of the drug court model, which mandates more frequent meetings between defendants and chemical dependency and mental health professionals to monitor progress.

The Stearns County approach likely would be a hybrid of programs in Washington and Hennepin counties, relying on veteran mentors to act as a sounding board and support system for defendants.

The city attorney’s office, which prosecutes misdemeanors, will use the protocol and has the support of the public defender’s office, Stearns County Human Services, local judges and VA.

Local court administration has started to collect the data that identifies which defendants are veterans so they can be connected with the VA and its services. And even though the protocol has not officially begun, judges in some cases have acknowledged a defendant’s service-related mental health condition or chemical dependency issue when crafting a sentence.

It’s an approach that Washington County has taken for the last year and about which its county attorney is passionate. Pete Orput, a Vietnam War veteran, hosted a program last week that explained what his county does and why.

How they do it

Washington County’s program is a diversion program, meaning that a defendant who wants to participate can’t plead not guilty, but the criminal conviction can be removed from their record if they are law-abiding and complete the terms of their sentence in the year after their plea.

Addressing the mental health and chemical dependency issues that plague many veterans who see the horrors of combat is the least of what we owe them, Orput said.

“These guys didn’t go in a criminal. They weren’t some miscreant that just floated into the service and continued their (criminal) behavior,” Orput said. “These are good people who went in, courageously fought and came out.”

“We broke the damn thing, and now I think we need to fix it,” he said.

The Washington County program has gotten 26 referrals and accepted 13. Two people have completed it so far.

Frequent drug testing addresses substance abuse, and ongoing interaction with the defendant veteran is essential to staying on top of their needs as they reintegrate to society. A big part of that is the veterans who agree to be mentors for other defendants, said Jon Larson, veterans program mentor coordinator in Washington County and a Vietnam veteran.

The goal is provide peer-to-peer support and act as a sponsor to help connect veterans with services and readjust to civilian life, he said.

“We see how they are doing, where they are coming from, any needs that they might let you know they are having,” Larson said. “Are they having any problems with their families, veterans that are having trouble with their kids. If they say they are having these problems, we try to get them back into a system, some kind of counseling or system that will help. It’s a long process for them, but it’s a good process.”

Veterans are screened before they are allowed into the Washington County program and, except in rare circumstances, must be charged with a crime that would normally bring a probationary sentence. They do allow defendants charged with felonies to get into the program.

The vet explains why they want to be in the program, must sign a release-of-information form and must be assessed at the VA. Veterans court cases are heard on a separate day and time by two judges who volunteer to hear just those cases.

Hennepin's plan

The Washington County program varies slightly from one that is almost three years old in Hennepin County. The Hennepin County program is 18 months long and is not a diversion program, although many cases result in a guilty plea, said retired Hennepin County District Court Judge Charles A. Porter Jr., a Navy veteran.

There are just more than 100 people in the Hennepin County program, which has about 30 “graduates.”

Porter stressed the need to have veterans mentoring veterans and have a separate court session set aside just to hear the veterans’ cases.

He said there has to be a point person committed to the cause to get it started. Locally, Courtney has been credited with taking charge, after hearing a presentation from Minneapolis attorney Brockton Hunter, a veteran who has spoken frequently to groups about the effects of modern warfare on veterans as they try to assimilate back into society.

Need to 'Believe Brock Hunter'

Hunter’s presentation in Stillwater last week hit home with several in attendance.

One was Porter, who said that in order to get started on a court plan specific to veterans you first need to “believe Brock Hunter.”

“In order to get it started, you have to believe that something about being in the military creates a kind of pressure that sometimes, not always, results in criminal behavior,” Porter said.

And, as contrary as it sounds to the economic realities of today, you shouldn’t worry about first getting the money to do it, Porter said.

“You need a commitment from the team to do it and figure out how to fund it later,” Porter said.

Beginning June 24, a committee of St. Cloud area stakeholders will meet to begin doing just that.

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