State's newest veterans court in Anoka County fills important niche

  • Article by: DAVID CHANEN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 2, 2013 - 8:44 PM

The state’s newest such intensive program gives a second chance to ex-military members.

Jacob Vevea was a rising leader in the Navy before a noncombat shoulder injury forced him to leave the service. When he came home, Vevea dealt with anger and anxiety by drinking.

A year ago, he got drunk and threatened someone. Facing a potential felony charge that would have clouded his future ability to run his small business, Vevea got a gift, he said, when he was accepted into a new Anoka County court that works only with veterans.

In April, he became the court’s first graduate. With his completion of the intensive, hands-on program, a judge allowed him to plead guilty to a misdemeanor that will be wiped off his record in October.

Hennepin County launched one of the first and largest veterans courts in the country in 2010. Since then, the number of these innovative programs has continued to expand as many veterans struggle to readjust to civilian life.

There are more than 369,000 veterans in Minnesota. A recent report showed that, since 9/11, nearly 30 percent of the 834,463 Iraq and Afghanistan War veterans treated at VA hospitals and clinics nationally have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Falling through the cracks

“I made a mistake and I got a second chance,” Vevea said. “If the court wasn’t there for me, my life would have changed a ton.”

Anoka County’s veterans court is structured like many of the more than 200 others in the United States. Assistant County Attorney C. Blair Buccicone went to his boss to get the court started about a year ago. He acted after seeing his brother, who served two tours in Iraq, and other vets fail to get the help they need and fall through the cracks.

Veterans can be asked to participate in the court or can get involved through a referral. The vets can’t have committed a major crime or a crime with a presumptive sentence.

They must be eligible for Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) benefits because the agency picks up the costs of medical, mental health or chemical dependency treatments tailored to vets.

Each participant must meet with the same judge once a month. Before each appearance, the judge, attorneys, probation officials and veterans officials also meet and review each person’s case.

Previously, the court system might not even have been aware that someone was a vet until a judge saw it on a pre-sentencing report. Now, all defendants are asked whether they are veterans when going through an evaluation for bail.

A mentor with military experience is assigned to each participant. If vets complete all the requirements, they plead guilty, but the conviction will be expunged from their records. The judge also can order a short probation.

Critics say the vet courts can be expensive, but Anoka and other counties have been able to get staff members and volunteers to help out, said County Attorney Tony Palumbo. An official with Hennepin County estimated that personnel costs for the court could be as high as $800,000 a year.

Buccicone and others bristle at any notion that vets shouldn’t receive special court treatment. “Vet courts are more difficult than traditional courts,” he said. “And every single person in the court volunteered to die for their country.”

Minnesota vets courts

Vevea, 38, who served in the Gulf War, is one of six participants in Anoka County, a number that’s expected to increase as word of the program spreads. Hennepin County has nearly 100 participants and Washington County, which started its program a year ago, works with about 20 vets.

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