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Judge: Veterans court coming to Third Judicial District

Post-Bulletin - 9/27/2018

Sept. 27--WINONA -- Veterans across 11 Southeast Minnesota counties will get their own treatment court beginning next summer.

Freeborn County Judge Ross Leuning spoke to the Winona County Board of Commissioners on Tuesday night, explaining how the new treatment court would work, how it would be funded, and how it would benefit veterans with substance abuse and other legal issues.

"We can make them succeed with probation and never come back into our system," Leuning said.

Veteran courts are different than typical treatment courts in several ways, he said. For example, veterans generally have more education and have shown, through their military service, they can follow a program that requires self-discipline.

"These are important traits in criminal justice for probation," Leuning said.

In fact, it was the differences between veterans and nonveterans in the criminal justice system that led to the first veterans courts about 10 years ago, Leuning said. Since then, more than 400 veterans courts have popped up around the country.

While the concept of the veterans court is fairly new, Leuning said it is a goal of Minnesota Supreme CourtChief Justice Lorie S. Gildea to have one in each county of the state.

In addition to the difference in general education level and the self-discipline, veterans coming home from combat are dealing with different issues that contribute to their criminal behavior, he said. From PTSD to housing problems and joblessness, reintegration after a deployment can lead to problems for veterans.

Because of this, the veterans court for the Third Judicial District would assign mentors, who are also veterans, to help the veterans in the program complete their treatment. The individuals in the treatment court would also receive services from existing county departments such as probation, county veterans service officers and the courts.

"Because the mentors are also veterans, they start with a common bond," said Leuning, who is also a veteran and served as a JAG officer for more than 30 years. "The mentorship aspect is probably the most critical component to the success of the program."

The only new service, Leuning said, would be a program coordinator who works for the district court office. That person would help coordinate case loads on two sides of the 11 counties of the district.

That person's salary would be paid for by federal grants, and the treatment would generally be paid for by Veterans Administration funding, meaning the counties, at least at this point, would not be asked for funding.

Winona County Commissioner Marcia Ward said the program sounds like a win for the county since it is not asking for county funds but would benefit county residents. Once grant funding, which Leuning said could last seven years, runs out, Ward said her hope is that the state would fund these veterans courts.

The west side would likely be headquartered in Steele County, while the eastern half would be headquartered in either Olmsted or Dodge counties. Leuning said the veterans court could start as early as July 1, 2019.

Like a typical treatment court, the veterans court would cover individuals convicted of drug and other substance abuse crimes. However, the veterans court might extend to some domestic violence crimes that can be common among returning veterans, he said.

The veterans court would also reap many of the same benefits of typical treatment courts such as lower recidivism rates, keeping the participants out of jail and in the community where they are working and paying taxes, and keeping them together with their families.

Several counties, mostly around the Twin Cities metro, have started veterans courts already, Leuning said, and the concept is catching on not just among criminal justice professionals but those who need the service as well.

"As judges, we're getting it from people coming in front of us," he said. "About once a month I get, 'Do you have a veterans court, I'd love to participate.'"


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