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Clay, Becker veterans in trouble with law find ally in specialty treatment court

MOORHEAD -- Military veterans living in Clay or Becker counties charged with committing a crime may find an ally in a new specialty court operating there.

MOORHEAD -- Military veterans living in Clay or Becker counties charged with committing a crime may find an ally in a new specialty court operating there.

Veterans Treatment Court offers veterans who have run afoul of the law an opportunity for greater access to mental health or chemical dependency treatment, more supervised probation and less time behind bars than in the traditional court system.

Advocates say the extra support is warranted and deserved.

“Some of these vets are coming back with issues with the criminal justice system caused by their service to this country,” said Don Kautzmann, coordinator of the Veterans Treatment Court and Drug Court in Clay County.

Clay County District Court Judge Michelle Lawson said veterans often have a harder time coming to terms with breaking the law.

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“There’s more shame involved,” she said.

The court takes in veterans who have been charged with gross misdemeanor and felony crimes, and who have either chemical dependency problems, mental health issues or both.

It does not accept those who have committed serious violent crimes including murder or sex offenses.

The program was started in fall 2015 with a federal grant from the Office of Justice Programs and a smaller grant from the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs.

Clay County first conducted a pilot project with one participant, then started the court fully in January with four participants. The regional court can accept a total of 30 veterans -- 20 in Clay County and 10 in Becker County.

Lawson said it started slower than expected, but will pick up as they begin identifying veterans earlier in the process with a question about military service on initial paperwork.

When defendants are identified as a veteran at their first court hearing, Kautzmann can refer them immediately to the screening process, which involves the prosecutor, defense attorneys or probation agents.

Lawson said a crucial part of the program is linking veterans with the services they’re entitled to through the Veterans Administration.

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“The criminal justice system is a conduit for them to connect,” she said.

Lawson said the program is highly structured, with a high level of supervision.

In addition to finding a job if they don’t have one and making court appearances, the veterans attend appointments at the VA Medical Center in Fargo almost daily and are subject to random checks and drug tests from their probation officer.

“It’s hard work,” Lawson said. “As an adult, you’re treated like a young teenager, being held accountable.”

Most veterans who participate in the special court will hope for a stay of adjudication rather than a conviction for their crime. That means their case is pending while they’re on probation, but dismissed when they’ve completed it. Lawson said if a veteran has any type of conviction, he or she is no longer eligible to serve in the military.

“Whether active duty or National Guard, a split second bad decision can result in them losing their military career,” she said.

But being involved in the court doesn’t automatically mean participants won’t serve a jail sentence. If it’s a serious offense, they may have to do time.

It takes an average of a year and a half for a veteran to complete the program. The last phase involves pairing the court participant with another veteran. About half of those who run the Veterans Treatment Court are veterans themselves, including Clay County Attorney Brian Melton.

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Lawson said while Veterans Treatment Court cases take more resources up front, there’s a big savings on the back side because there are fewer relapses into criminal behavior.

The average recidivism rate for veterans who don’t go through a program like this is 50 to 60 percent, five years out. For those who complete the speciality court, it’s 15 to 25 percent.

Lawson also said veterans who complete the program become better functioning and contributing members of society; for example, staying current on child support.

“Sometimes getting arrested turns out to be one of the best things to happen to anyone,” Lawson said of the opportunity for a veteran in legal trouble to turn things around.

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