Minnesota to get 11-county veterans court system this year

By SAM WILMES | Albert Lea (Minn.) Tribune | Published: January 30, 2019

ALBERT LEA, Minn. (Tribune News Service) — A veterans court covering the 11-county 3rd Judicial District Court region  in Minnesota is expected to be operational this year.

Judge Ross Leuning said the court will cater to veterans in the community and will include highly intensive probationary courts in which clients are met with more regularly, and increased oversight takes place for 18 months to two years.

County veterans service officers, the state’s veterans justice outreach officer, probation officers, mental health professionals and treatment professionals are expected to connect veterans to needed Veterans Affairs services.

Steele County has offered court space for the program and is expected to host the court in the western part of the district. Olmsted or Winona County are expected to host the court on the east side of the district.

“We always have two options in a criminal justice setting,” Leuning said. “We can treat the issue, try to correct the problem and help the person get their life back together and become a productive, contributing citizen, or we can punish them, put him in jail or put him in prison. Of course we want to try to help them turn their life around first, and that’s what the programming out there can do, and that’s what we want to use.”

Leuning said veterans court cases typically include gross misdemeanors and felonies. Sexual assaults are not expected to be covered by the court because of available treatment for those cases.

“We see enough vets through our criminal courts system to maybe supply two or three a year,” he said of how many Freeborn County veterans would be seen in the court.

“We have tools available to us as a society, primarily the Veterans Administration, that so many veterans do not use. If we can get them connected to the VA and get them the benefits that are there and tools that are there — like drug and alcohol treatment, domestic abuse programming, housing assistance, employment assistance — there are so many things that the federal government is providing them that they’re just not using.”

Leuning, who has been selected to spearhead the program in the 3rd Judicial District, noted most veterans courts are in single counties and also noted the difficulty larger courts have with varying probation departments in separate counties.

He said once federal government funding is secured, a program coordinator and a case manager will need to be in place.

“We want to start with one person for both jobs,” Leuning said.

Leuning is a six-year veteran of the U.S. Army National Guard and spent 31 years and eight months in the Navy and the Navy Reserve. He said he was selected to lead the initiative based on his experience.

“It helps to be a veteran,” he said. “I know their world. I speak their language. I live their life. I’m just a step closer to the veterans. It just gives me a head start.”

He said veterans accused of crimes have proven records of following orders.

“They’ve proven they’re are amenable to programming — that’s what the military is, so we know they are the personality type that will succeed in probation and treatment if we can just get them to it,” Leuning said.

“We should be using it. It’s good for them. It’s good for our community.”

Leuning noted some military veteran defendants are attending court in 5th Judicial District Court in Mankato because of the lack of a local veterans court. He expressed hope the program will allow those defendants to return to Steele County.

To Leuning, having the courts be covered by an 11-county area will make for a quality veterans court program, which he expects to reduce county costs because of VA funding after referrals take place.

Veterans courts are funded mainly by federal grants.

Leuning said federal funding is expected to be received by Oct. 1.

The court is expected to start on a relatively small basis March 1 on court money and staff time so glitches can be alleviated before federal funding is received.

Leuning noted there are more than 460 veterans courts across the country.

“The federal government recognizes (it) has a role in assisting states with veterans who have in many cases, due to their military experience, are acting out,” he said.

Leuning noted prosecutors would have the discretion not to place veterans charged with crimes into veterans court and credited Freeborn County probation agents Brandon Servantez and Dave Wolf — both veterans — for their work in beginning the process.

Leuning estimated there are approximately 30,000 veterans in the 3rd Judicial District.

Leuning noted rates of post-traumatic stress disorder for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans range between 20 percent and 30 percent, comparable to the 30 percent rate for Vietnam War vets. He said between 200 and 400 veterans go through Olmsted County jail annually, though a large number of those cases would not qualify for veterans court because they are misdemeanors.

“It’s a win-win all around,” Leuning said of veterans court. “It’s a good thing to do.”

©2019 the Albert Lea Tribune (Albert Lea, Minn.)
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