Jackson County participates in new Veterans Court
JACKSON -- A Veterans Court program for the Fifth Judicial District was recently approved by the Minnesota Judicial Council. The program will serve Jackson, Blue Earth, Brown, Faribault, Martin, Nicollet and Watonwan counties and was formed through partnerships between veterans affairs and criminal justice agencies.
The eight- to 12-month program is voluntary and intended to handle cases involving defendants with a military history and charged with a misdemeanor, gross misdemeanor or felony offense, and also struggling with addiction, serious mental illness and/or co-occurring disorders.
"We're doing a test to see whether it works," Jackson County Attorney Bob O'Connor said of the program. "The idea is that we're going to try and make sure veterans aren't encountering criminal activity because they aren't being supported."
Organizers of the program recognize that military veterans face unique challenges after their time of service, and often need specific treatment and support frequently provided by the Department of Veterans Affairs and other veteran organizations.
The Veterans Court aims to support veterans and their families through a coordinated effort among government veterans services, community-based services and the court with the goal of leaving no veteran behind.
While the program is ultimately voluntary, participants must meet program qualifications and receive a referral to be accepted into the Veterans Court.
"Should a vet have an issue with the criminal court, he will likely be referred to the Veteran Court, and usually the county attorney will do the recommending," O'Connor said.
Similar to drug courts, the Veterans Court is comprised of a multi-disciplinary team of professionals. The team will meet on a regular basis to collaboratively assist veterans with an array of services such as emergency financial assistance, chemical dependency, employment, temporary housing, advocacy, mental health and trauma counseling, and other referral services.
In an effort to promote a greater degree of understanding, many of the people involved in the hearings are veterans themselves.
"The idea is that the prosecutor, defending prosecutor and the judge are all veterans," O'Connor said.
The Honorable Bradley C. Walker, a retired Marine Corps colonel and Fifth Judicial District Chief Judge, will serve as the Veterans Court Judge.
"When they aren't telling us the truth, we can't tell, O'Connor added, "And when they are telling us the truth, we can help them through the issues."
As a retired army reserve commander, O'Connor has seen firsthand the effects that being in the military can have on individuals.
"Sometimes vets have special issues in their life that impact the way they conduct things," he said. "I am a vet ... and that is one of the reasons I support it. I've had a number of soldiers under me that got into trouble -- sometimes due to military status."
The program was created by the Blue Earth County Attorney's Office in February 2012 with the help of many partners in the criminal justice system. The new multi-county program will model the success of the Blue Earth County Veteran's Court.
Hearings will be at 11 a.m. on the second Friday of every month in Blue Earth County Justice Center. Interactive television will be used to allow the team and judge to meet with individuals at other sites through an audio and video connection.
A grant from the Alcohol and Drug Abuse Division of the Minnesota Department of Human Services was received to establish the Fifth Judicial District Veterans Court.