The war in Afghanistan was nine years old when Hennepin County started the state’s first veterans treatment court in 2010. More vet courts have been added since.
But with no end to the war in sight, questions are being raised about whether the state’s vet courts can keep up with the growing number of veterans. The courts — special programs designed to assist military veterans in the criminal justice system who are struggling with chemical or mental health issues — typically are funded sporadically and rely on federal grants, advocates say.
“We’re just not close to where we need to be for the wave that’s coming but still hasn’t broken yet,” said Brock Hunter, a Minneapolis criminal defense lawyer. “If this generation continues to fight these wars, we are going to have a major challenge when they come home.”
Hunter, a founder of the Minneapolis-based nonprofit Veterans Defense Project, is leading a push to expand vet courts. The group plans to ask lawmakers in January to stabilize funding for existing vet courts and back legislation making it easier to start a treatment program.
The Veterans Defense Project has been working for more than a year with some of the metro area’s top prosecutors, local judges, the state public defender and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
Ramsey County Attorney John Choi supports the legislation and said treatment courts need stable funding. He said they should be instituted across the state and focus on proven best practices to make them successful.
“The bottom line is that treatment courts work,” Choi said. “We know they have better recidivism rates than the traditional adversarial process. You can’t make somebody drink the water if they don’t want to. But we can lead them to it.”
Alex Kempe, 37, was an Army reservist who served in Iraq and had a difficult time adjusting after returning to the Twin Cities. In trouble for drugs and assaults, Kempe was accepted into Ramsey County’s vet court. He said it helped him find a place to live and get time to visit his young children. “It was a godsend,” he said.
Dealing with trauma
Minnesota doesn’t track the number of graduates or recidivism rates for veterans courts. But a 2016 Hennepin County study showed that 75 percent of the 341 veterans who entered the program graduated, well above the 59 percent national average for treatment courts. And it found that those who completed treatment were much less likely to be arrested again than those who didn’t.
Veterans courts have spread in the metro area and across the state since Hennepin’s began. Seven counties in all have created vet courts, while five other counties run smaller informal versions that use many of the same practices. Jurisdictions build the courts from scratch, in the same vein as drug courts, with their own rules, incentives and consequences for those who fail.
Washington County started one in 2011, and Ramsey County in 2014. Both run smaller programs than Hennepin; Ramsey has graduated 35 veterans since 2014, many of whom have only recently completed the program, which typically lasts about 18 months.
All three counties have found that most veterans who enter the program homeless were able to find and keep housing, and some reconnected with family members they hadn’t seen in decades. Prosecutors, judges and defense attorneys all swear by the courts’ effectiveness.
No matter where they are, vet courts follow roughly the same blueprint. They’re designed for veterans who are arrested under any number of charges, most commonly drug use or assaults. Many are homeless, and most have been arrested multiple times. They include veterans who came home a year ago and those who fought in Vietnam.
Rather than prosecute the case, the county attorney accepts a plea deal with an offer: If the vet completes an intensive treatment program, typically funded through VA benefits available to former soldiers, the plea is tossed and the charges are dropped.
“We have a better understanding of trauma and how to treat it than we have ever had before,” Hunter said. “It’s an age-old thing. But we’re only just now starting to think about how to turn warriors back into citizens.”
It’s getting harder for soldiers to readjust to civilian life because they’re being sent back for multiple tours, said Hunter, who has a client who did 12 tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“We’re sending these people back to combat over and over and over, in a way that’s never been done here before,” he said. “That trauma mounts.”
‘You’re not on your own’
Kempe served 14 months with the Army Reserves at the start of the war in Iraq. Two weeks before going home, a good friend of his took his place on a convoy. The convoy was hit and his friend was killed.
Kempe came home and bounced around a number of part-time jobs. Within six months he was using methamphetamine, he said. He was arrested somewhere around 30 times; he’d post bail and get arrested again, he said.
He sobered up for a time, bought a house, earned a college degree, got married and had two sons, now ages 7 and 9. When his marriage started falling apart, he started using again. By 2016 he was divorced, homeless, high and wanted in five metro counties on drug charges and assaults.
Then he entered Ramsey County’s vet court, which included 18 months of near-constant court hearings and check-ins. The court helped him find a place to live, and after he started making progress it helped him get parental time with his sons and find day care for his daughter, now 2.
“You have these ups and downs, but during the downs you’re not on your own,” Kempe said. “There’s a probation officer, the judge, the prosecutor is working with you. I am able to hold myself accountable because I know how much work was put into getting me here.”
Washington County Attorney Pete Orput is a Vietnam veteran who has been working closely with the Veterans Defense Project. He helped Hennepin County start its program while he was working there, and the first thing he established after being elected Washington County attorney was a treatment program for veterans.
Orput estimates that about 25 vets have graduated since 2011, and that another 25 are currently participating. He said the country has a moral obligation to help fix soldiers who come back broken.
“We’re the ones who broke them,” Orput said. “They didn’t go to war as criminals. They went on our orders.”