After a slow start, an innovative effort to reduce crime by veterans in Washington County is showing encouraging signs of lowering recidivism rates among vets, county court officials say.

The county's veterans court was established two years ago, around the same time that similar diversion programs were sprouting up across the metro area.

Of the 35 people who have been accepted into the Washington County veterans court, 10 have successfully completed the program or are in the process of doing so, and 10 have undergone some form of treatment. Thirteen have dropped out "for various reasons," said County Attorney Pete Orput, the program's chief architect.

Two people were dismissed: one for violating a court-issued no-contact order while the other simply dropped out, officials said.

Hennepin County launched the state's first veterans court in 2010. A study of that program found that 83 percent of the 131 veterans participating in it from 2010 to 2012 committed fewer offenses after six months as compared with the six months before entering.

No such data is available yet in Washington County, but county court officials and legal experts say that, anecdotally, program participants get better sooner and are less likely to wind up back in jail.

Program objectives

Veterans courts are designed to help vets whose minor criminal offenses may have resulted from mental or substance abuse stemming from the psychological wounds of war, including post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury and depression. Among their chief aims are helping vets to stay out of jail and re-acclimate to civilian life.

Normally, veterans who commit crimes, like other defendants, would be herded through the criminal justice system, which supporters of the special courts view as woefully ill-equipped to meet their needs.

By participating in the veterans court program, however, vets can win reduced sentences if they agree to intensive counseling. Should they commit another crime or violate program terms, they would be subject to the same punishment they would have received before entering the program, Orput wrote in an unpublished essay on the topic.

"If a veteran accepts blame, adheres to strict guidelines, which include court appearances, intensive therapy and random drug testing, and completes the program, the participant is eligible to have the charges reduced or dropped," wrote Orput, who also helped spearhead the Hennepin County veterans court.

Most of the cases tried in veterans courts involve low-level misconduct, though exceptions are made for crimes such as terroristic threats, criminal damage to property and domestic abuse, but only after approval from a screening panel.

Washington County ranks fifth among the seven metro counties in overall veterans population, with 16,273 former service members, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Currently, there are four vets enrolled in the program, which meets the first Friday of every month at the courthouse in Stillwater. One is expected to graduate in March.

District Judge Richard Ilkka, one of two judges who preside over the court, said he's been "very impressed" with it so far. He said that participants particularly benefit from being mentored by another veteran.

Personally, he added, "I think we owe our veterans this extra service."