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Veterans court could keep Minnesota vets from re-offending, reduce caseload for Winona judges

October 6, 2018

Veterans treatment court has the potential to reduce the recidivism rate — the likelihood of a convicted criminal to re-offend — said Freeborn County Judge Ross Leuning during a presentation before the Winona County Board last month.

Leuning, a veteran who served 31 years as a Navy JAG, said Minnesota’s 3rd Judicial District is now considering instituting a veterans treatment court as a way to address crime among Minnesota vets.

The proposed treatment court mirrors Winona County’s Drug Court — now called Treatment Court — which provides drug offenders the resources and structure they need to become law-abiding, sober, citizens. Instead of drug offenders the veterans treatment court work to help veterans.

Much like a person entering a 12-step treatment program such as Alcoholics Anonymous, a vet entering the program would be paired with a sponsor.

“The mentorship aspect is probably the most critical part of the success of the program,” Leuning said.

He said veterans have qualities that make them ideal candidates for a specialty court.

“They have been through a military program that lends itself to self-discipline,” he said. “Those are the kind of things that we in the criminal justice program we build on.

“We’re not saying veterans deserve more. We’re saying they are already staged for success.”

County commissioner Marie Kovecsi and county board chair Marcia Ward expressed concern about the effect introducing another specialty court would have on Winona County’s judicial system after losing one of its three sitting judges this spring.

“Will this shift caseload out of the local court?” Ward asked.

Leuning explained that because veterans wouldn’t be going through the county court system, it should reduce the caseload for local judges. He added, if the court is successful, veterans will be less likely to re-offend, which will further reduce the burden on the courts.

However, unlike Winona County’s Treatment Court, Minnesota’s 3rd District doesn’t have the population necessary to support a veterans court in every county.

Olmsted County is the only county that is big enough, Leuning said.

Instead, the district would have two veterans courts in the western and eastern part of the district, and participants would either need to transport themselves or attend via teleconferencing equipment.

According to Leuning, the addition of the specialty court is unlikely to cost the county much if anything thanks to the availability of federal grants and volunteers. Veterans Affairs benefits that vets are already entitled to are also expected to reduce the cost of the court.

“There is federal funding for these veterans courts,” he said. “The typical grant is right around $240,000 and some veterans courts operate with no additional funding whatsoever.”

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