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EDITORIAL: Veterans court would be smart, effective justice

Post-Bulletin - 6/13/2018

June 13--Two years ago, Olmsted County joined other counties in the state that have a drug court -- a court-ordered treatment program described as "a collaborative effort of criminal justice stakeholders working together to break the cycle of substance abuse."

By all accounts, it's had value and is working as intended.

Now, Judge Ross Leuning of the 3rd Judicial District is proposing a court for veterans. Patterned after drug courts, a veterans court for the 3rd District would emphasize a court-ordered and monitored rehabilitation and treatment program, rather than routine sentencing.

It's not an entirely new concept. There are veterans courts in Anoka, Hennepin and Ramsey counties, and there's another based in Mankato that serves the 5th Judicial District counties of Blue Earth, Brown, Faribault, Jackson, Martin, Nicollet and Watonwan.

In the 5th District, the explicit goals are to "increase compliance with treatment and other court-ordered conditions, improve access to VA benefits and services ... and reduce contacts with the criminal justice system."

One would hope that last point is the goal of Minnesota's judicial system generally. The wish for all people convicted of a crime and standing in front of a judge for sentencing is that they'll never be in that position again.

In a veterans court, the judge would have a wide array of tools for sentencing that are geared especially for veterans, many of which already are available. These include intensive probation, substance abuse and other counseling, random drug and alcohol testing, employment and housing assistance, and peer monitoring.

The peer monitoring is a key part of the program and builds on the relationships and training that veterans received during their military career. Leuning, a 38-year Navy veteran, said the court program "taps into the training and background and experience that people get in the military."

The existing veterans courts in Minnesota are a unique partnership of the Minnesota Judicial Branch, the VA, county attorneys, human services departments, local law enforcement and others who can help -- all in the service of helping a veteran deal with whatever led to a criminal conviction and avoid another one.

The planning and approval process is just beginning and Olmsted County Attorney Mark Ostrem said last month it likely will be at least a year before the veterans court could begin work.

Though some may ask why veterans should get "special treatment" when they break the law -- and advocates need to explain this well, that it's not tipping the scales of justice but providing for more effective sentencing -- a good argument can be made for a process that ties together the services available for veterans in a way that helps them avoid reoffending.

That's what drug courts are all about and it's how veterans courts work. The goal is to get people the help they need to get on the right path and avoid reoffending.

Some might call that social engineering, We call it smart justice. And yes, veterans deserve "special treatment" in that way. They've earned it.

Got a comment? Send it to letters@postbulletin.com.

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