In 2013, officials in the Third Judicial District like Olmsted County Attorney Mark Ostrem began talking about creating a veterans court.
In March that dream finally became a reality when the first hearing of the veteran’s court pilot program was held.
While there is a lot of work that goes into creating specialty courts like a veterans court, the reality is that many people in the district realize it's something that's needed from probation officers to judges and everyone in between.
Judge Ross Leuning of Owatonna, who serves on the bench in Freeborn County, is one of the leading forces behind creating the court. With a 37-year career in the military, including 31 years of active duty in the Navy, Leuning explained that by creating the veterans court, they aren’t only helping veterans. He said that when someone gets in trouble, it affects many people, including loved ones, children and the community in general.
Whether it’s a child not having a parent at home, or a spouse not having their wife or husband at home, it often causes many problems, Leuning said. He added often times the people they see in court are those people who are affected.
Through the veterans court, Leuning and others are confident that recidivism rates for veterans will go down and will help save their lives by getting them the help they need, and in return will help many people.
“If a person gets in trouble, it's ripple effect. Their spouses, loved ones and children lives are harder,” Leuning said.
Leuning also pointed to the fact that the highest cost for counties when it comes to criminal justice is housing of inmates. By keeping veterans out of jail and in the community, it is good for everyone, he said.
“By having these people as productive members of society, it’s better for everyone,” Leuning said.
The judge explained that because of how intense the probation is in veterans court, it often works better than regular probation.
By having the veterans court in the district, it will likely help many veterans and counties in general because of the large amount of veterans that have been involved in the criminal justice system. Those numbers were pointed out in the district’s summary on the veterans court.
According to the Minnesota State Court Administration Office in 2016 and 2017, there were 3,156 and 3,212 veteran involved criminal cases filed respectively in the Third Judicial District. This number is likely under reported as many men and women do not identify themselves as veterans when they enter the justice system.
In 2017, the most serious charged offenses included Drug (1,050 filing, 34%), Person (664, 21%), Property (515, 17 %), Felony Domestic Assault (391, 13%), Other Felony (285, 9%), Sex Crimes (126, 4%), Felony DWI (73, 2%), and Murder (17, 1%).
Another thing that was pointed out is the fact that having veterans court has the potential to help reduce suicide rates among veterans.
According to the district court’s summary about veterans court, the rate of Minnesota veteran suicide is very high.
In 2014, the Minnesota veteran suicide rate was reported at 35.0 per 100,000, twice as high as the Midwestern Region, and National general population suicide rates, according to the summary. It went on to say Minnesota veterans ages 18-34 were 4.4 times more likely to commit suicide than any of the other general populations (U.S. Dept of Veterans Affairs, 2014). The Minnesota National Guard has had more of its service members die by suicide in the past five years (2011-2016) than all but one state, Pennsylvania. Once the veterans court is operational, it will target screening, identifying, and addressing veterans at high risk for self-harm.
By having a Veteran’s Court in the district, it is believed that they can help reduce suicide rates.
In addition to an opportunity to reduce veteran recidivism and potential costs of incarceration to the community, the Department of Defense views veteran courts as an option to reduce potential suicides.
Leuning explained that one of the most important aspects of the specialty court is that it’s a joint effort between the court and the VA. For example, every hearing a representative known as a Veteran Justice Outreach Officer, from the VA who is tasked with helping the veteran get through the “red tape” of the VA, and help them get benefits that can help them significantly.
The process to officially create a veterans court began in 2017, with an implementation study and included things like different trainings, visiting different veterans courts among other things.
The final step in the process is waiting to find out if they will receive federal funding of $500,000 over the course of four years, which would pay for a variety of different things. They are expected to find out the results of the award this summer.
After examining different things like court space, and drive times, it was determined that Fillmore County will be the host for the veterans court for eastern counties and Steele County will be the host for western counties.
The district court includes Steele, Dodge, Rice, Waseca, Freeborn, Mower, Olmsted, Fillmore, Wabasha, Winona and Houston.
Currently, the veterans court pilot program is helping eight veterans. On Sept. 20, there will be a ribbon cutting to officially kick off the specialty court in the district. Although the court will officially begin on Oct. 1, that date was picked in honor of POW/MIA day.
For more information about veterans court or to volunteer as a peer mentor, contact David Wulff at 507-377-5143 or email him at David.Wulff@co.freedborn.mn.us.