Hennepin County’s Veterans Court, the first in Minnesota, celebrates five years of operation next week.
A morning in the Veterans Court is unlike that in any other. From the start, defendants are called to the bench by branch of service, not by offense. In addition to the U.S. and Minnesota flags, flags from each service branch and a POW flag are displayed in Courtroom 857.
But more than anything, the tone of the proceedings is different — less adversarial, more of a sense of support and advocacy. It comes from the demeanor of Judge Kerry Meyer on down.
During Monday’s proceedings, for instance, Meyer, who has been on the vet court bench since September 2013, recalled that one defendant had recently crashed his car and another was about to have a baby the last time they met.
“You get to see people do well; we never get to see that anywhere else,” she said. “It’s so much more rewarding.”
The court is not offered to offenders as absolution, but it is more than strictly punitive. Modeled after drug courts and mental health courts, it requires vets to take responsibility for whatever actions landed them there and to structure a blend of punishment and treatment.
The court works closely with the Minneapolis Veterans Medical Center, and a representative of Veterans Affairs is in the courtroom to confirm scheduled appointments and program opportunities.
Since July 2010, 224 vets have participated and 165 have graduated. The largest percentage (29) have been vets between ages 25 and 34. About 80 vets a year are referred to the court.
While there have been failures (54 vets have been terminated from the court), the successes have been worth the extra effort, Meyer said.
Like the Vietnam veteran who had not slept a whole night since returning from the war. His teeth had been pulled because he would grind them. After a lot of prodding, he agreed to a post-traumatic stress disorder program.
“You could see in his face when he had done the breakthrough that he had finally come home,” she said.