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St. Cloud, Minn. program changes handling of criminal cases involving veterans

The St. Cloud City Attorney’s Office has launched a new way of handling criminal cases involving defendants who are military veterans.

The new protocol stresses collaboration among multiple disciplines in the justice system to address mental health, substance abuse and behavioral issues that contributed to the veteran committing the crime for which he or she is charged. Another goal of the program is to get eligible veterans connected to services at the VA Health Care System.

The protocol went into effect earlier this month. About a dozen vets have been screened for eligibility. One has been accepted into the program, another is expected to join next month, and admission to the program is pending for three others, said Renee Courtney, assistant city attorney.

“The goal of the program is to try to reach people who maybe are in the criminal justice system, maybe keep coming back and have issues that they’ve never quite dealt with or the alternative is that we’re getting somebody who has never addressed any issues and we’re trying to get them in the protocol so they hopefully don’t do this again,” Courtney said.

The collaboration includes the city attorney’s office, Stearns County probation, the public defender’s office, county veterans services officer, VA justice outreach officer, two judges and mentors for the veterans.

To qualify for the protocol, defendants must have served in or be currently serving in the U.S. military and have a treatable disorder that is “substantially related” to the crime they committed. The veteran also must qualify for VA benefits.

Admission to the program is voluntary and requires defendants to plead guilty to the charge and accept a sentence that will be imposed if and when they complete the terms of the protocol.

Monthly meetings are scheduled to assess the progress of the veteran in his or her individualized treatment program, as are meetings with the judge to keep him or her updated on the veteran’s progress. Stearns County District Court Judge Kris Davick Halfen will lead the protocol from the court perspective.

Anyone in the legal system can refer defendants to the protocol. Courtney, in consultation with Mike Mathies of the VA’s Veterans Justice Outreach Program, will decide who to admit to the program.

The protocol, which has been two years in the making, will aim to help veterans with housing, jobs and other challenges to getting back on their feet. They are seeking and will train other veterans to be mentors for the participants.

Other successful veterans justice programs have veteran mentors as a key component of support, Courtney said.

“It’s a big collaboration,” she said. “This is a great way to share resources and information on these veterans that we otherwise might not know.”

The veteran will be placed on one of two tracks within the protocol, one that lasts about a year and one that lasts about 18 months.

Successful completion will be based on continued sobriety, participation in counseling, treatment and other required programming.

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