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Veterans court pioneer and Washington County Attorney Pete Orput (right) appears before the Veterans Affairs Division Committee on Feb. 13 in support of House File 728. Also pictured (center) is bill author Rep. Debra Hillstrom, DFL-Brooklyn Center, and (left) Peggy Moon, the American Legion’s Minnesota legislative director. (Staff photo: Kevin Featherly)
Veterans court pioneer and Washington County Attorney Pete Orput (right) appears before the Veterans Affairs Division Committee on Feb. 13 in support of House File 728. Also pictured (center) is bill author Rep. Debra Hillstrom, DFL-Brooklyn Center, and (left) Peggy Moon, the American Legion’s Minnesota legislative director. (Staff photo: Kevin Featherly)

Veterans Court bill inches forward

Rep. Bob Dettmer, R-Forest Lake, (center) chair of the Veterans Affairs Division Committee, chats with Committee Administrator John Hultquist (left) during the Feb. 13 committee hearing where House File 728 got a hearing. That bill would increase funding for veterans courts in Minnesota, an idea that Dettmer supports. Committee Legislative Assistant Jeremy Hansen is seen at right.   (Staff photo: Kevin Featherly)

Rep. Bob Dettmer, R-Forest Lake, (center) chair of the Veterans Affairs Division Committee, chats with Committee Administrator John Hultquist (left) during the Feb. 13 committee hearing where House File 728 got a hearing. That bill would increase funding for veterans courts in Minnesota, an idea that Dettmer supports. Committee Legislative Assistant Jeremy Hansen is seen at right. (Staff photo: Kevin Featherly)

Washington County Attorney Pete Orput is a Minnesota pioneer in the development of veterans courts—specialty courts that help steer criminally charged combat veterans out of jail. He wants to see more of them.

A bill inching its way forward in the Minnesota House might help him get his wish.

House File 728 is authored by Rep. Debra Hilstrom, DFL-Brooklyn Center, on leave from her job as an Anoka County prosecutor. Her bill seeks an unspecified amount of money for domestic abuse and homelessness prevention, mental health and chemical abuse treatment, and several other issues.

The last line item in what Hilstrom calls her “mini-omnibus bill”—the one appropriating money to the State Court Administrator to develop veterans courts throughout the state—got the lion’s share of attention during the Feb. 13 hearing.

“Veterans are very important to our state,” she said. “And at a time of budget surpluses, I want to make sure they are part of the conversation.”

The veterans courts that her bill would finance are a hybrid of drug and mental health courts. Typically they are collaborative efforts involving district courts, the state and federal departments of Veterans Affairs, the Veterans Benefits Administration, volunteer mentors and veteran-focused community groups.

They are an alternative to jail for veterans who suffer from post-combat syndromes like post-traumatic stress, traumatic brain injury, severe depression and “moral injuries” resulting from multiple tours of combat duty, Orput said.

Coupling those issues with the militaristic sense of machismo that makes ex-soldiers resistant to outside help is a recipe for disaster, he said. “Many veterans try to self-treat,” Orput said. “That leads them into visiting with me.”

Orput helped establish Minnesota’s first veterans court in Hennepin County before launching a second one as Washington County attorney in 2011. While the vets he sees are in trouble with the law—most often they face domestic assault charges—virtually none had a criminal record prior to returning home from military service, he said.

Orput describes a typical case. “This is a guy who was clean as a whistle until he got back,” Orput said. “Then he tipped over and beat up his wife because he was drunk playing video games while she’s yelling at him to go get a job. But he can’t find one. And he snaps.”

Orput doesn’t excuse that behavior. But as a Vietnam War veteran who assisted in the evacuations of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, and Saigon, South Vietnam, he understands better than most where it comes from. So do the military vets who volunteer to help his program function. “I think we can break through to these veterans in ways that other people can’t,” Orput said.

Since launching in 2011, Washington County’s veterans court has worked with 72 combat veterans. None of them have committed any additional crimes, Orput said.

A 2013 Hennepin County District Court study showed similarly good results—though not the spotless record Washington County claims. Of 131 defendants who went through that county’s veterans court between 2010 and 2012, the court’s report said, 83 percent committed fewer offenses six months into the program than they had six months before starting.

‘Undo the harm’

Despite his track record, Orput tends to denigrate his veterans court as inferior to similar courts in Ramsey County and elsewhere—nearly all of which followed in his footsteps.

“I did it on a shoestring,” Orput said. “If I had money I would do it like Ramsey does where they have full time staff. We’re just doing what we can do to get it done.”

Orput relies on volunteers. Early on, he recruited a volunteer public defender—a female Army veteran—to take on veterans cases. He recruited some older veterans to acts as mentors. Then he got a few Washington County district court judges to hear veterans court cases, usually on the first Friday of each month.

“We kind of cobbled it together,” he said. “Right now it drives fine, but I think it could be the gold standard.”

Arguably, that designation now belongs to Ramsey County. There County Attorney John Choi secured a three-year, $350,000 grant from the U.S. Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Assistance to start a veterans treatment court. Since then he has scored other grants to keep it afloat—though base-budget state funding would help make it permanent, he said.

Choi’s veterans court graduated its first participant in 2015. Sixteen more have finished since then, and 54 others are participating now. His diversion program takes an average of 18 months to complete, Choi said.

Both county attorneys stress that veterans courts are not a get-out-of-jail-free cards. They’re not available to veterans who commit the most heinous crimes, including murder, for example. Veterans are vigorously screened and generally have to have seen combat and returned home with lingering post-combat chemical dependency and psychiatric issues.

Once accepted in, veterans must take responsibility and make restitution. They must adhere to strict guidelines that include checking in regularly with judges, probation agents and mentors. They undergo layers of intensive therapy that includes chemical dependency treatment and psychological counseling—much of it funded by the federal Veterans Affairs Department. They must submit to random drug tests.

If the veteran does all that, charges likely will be reduced or dropped, Orput said. If not, he or she will bear the same punishment faced before entering the program, Orput said. That carrot-and-stick approach may be the best way to get through to returning vets who otherwise see submission as weakness, Orput said.

“We have to realize that we built these guys so damned tough that when we ask them to surrender, it’s really hard to do,” he said. “If we can find a way to get rid of that armor and get to the core of what is going on, we will have great success.”

Choi thinks he views veterans courts a “little more cerebrally” than the passion-driven Orput. But they fundamentally agree that they are an opportunity to use the court system not just to punish but to help repair the lives of broken soldiers.

“We owe it to this population,” Choi said. “People pay a price for their service and we should try to undo the harm.”

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Keeping veterans in the mix

House File 728 passed the House Veterans Affairs Division with a unanimous voice vote. It was referred back to the House State Government Finance Committee, which has yet to schedule a hearing on it.

Hilstrom said she left the appropriation lines in her bill blank intentionally, a trick she said she learned from House Taxes Committee Chair Greg Davids, R-Preston. “I want as much money as possible,” she said. “My goal is to work with the committee chairs that have money to see if we can’t increase the funding.”

In at least one way, the timing is good. This year for the first time, the Minnesota Judicial Branch made a $3.4 million request to stabilize existing “drug courts and other treatment court programs“ for 2018-19. The legislature has been funding specialty courts at between $750,000 to $1.5 million a year, Hilstrom said.

However, compared to other alternative courts, veterans courts are in an embryonic state; only seven operate now in Minnesota’s 87 counties. “I just want to make certain that veterans courts are part of the mix,” Hilstrom said.

Rep. Bob Dettmer, R-Forest Lake, is chair of the Veterans Affairs Division, the committee that gave DFL-authored bill a hearing. Dettmer, a veteran, said became a fan of vets courts after sitting through some Hennepin County sessions.

“It’s just a great way to help these men and women that have some issues after they come back from the battlefield,” Dettmer said. He came away with no doubts about their effectiveness.

“It works,” Dettmer said. “It’s working.”

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