Ramsey County will launch its new veterans court Thursday in hopes of connecting veterans with resources to help them rebuild their lives and overcome the obstacles that led them to criminal activity.
The effort, one of many in Minnesota and across the country, is targeted at veterans charged with nonviolent crimes who may be suffering from emotional and mental health issues, chemical dependency and employment problems connected to their service.
The specialized court track will operate much like mental health, drug and DWI court, but will differ in bringing other players into the cases, such as local and federal veterans officials.
"No one can predict how the consequences of combat will manifest themselves," said Maj. Gen. Richard C. Nash, adjutant general of the Minnesota National Guard. "It's not a get-out-of-jail-free card."
Nash was among several partners who gathered Friday to announce the new effort, which took shape over a year of planning among officials from St. Paul, the county, the community and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
The veterans court track is funded through 2016 with a $350,000 federal grant and about $118,000 from the Ramsey County attorney's office.
It's built to handle up to 25 cases at a time. The court will meet once a week before two rotating judges, when only veterans' cases will be heard.
One attorney each from the county and St. Paul city attorneys' offices will prosecute the cases. Veterans can hire private attorneys or work with public defender Evan Tsai, a U.S. Marine, who is designated to handle such cases.
City Attorney Sara Grewing and Assistant City Attorney Jessica McConaughey said the court will hold veterans accountable for completing their programming before they see any benefits, such as dismissal of charges.
"We like to say that the reward is they'll be able to get their life on track," said McConaughey, who will prosecute cases in veterans court.
Kim Bingham, assistant director of the criminal division in the county attorney's office, was a key planner of the system. She said police will distribute business cards with veterans court contact information to suspected criminals who have served in the military. Veterans will have to apply for the program.
"It's much more labor intensive" for the defendants, Bingham said of the veterans court. "If they don't do what they're supposed to do, we'll put them back on the other side."
Bingham said that once the federal grant runs out, Ramsey County will seek state, federal and other grant funding to keep the program going.