A day in Veterans Court: a redemption movement inching closer to Southeast Minnesota

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LA CROSSE, Wis. (KTTC) – They served in our military. Now, they’re convicted drug users or violent offenders.

Federal statistics indicate about 180,000 veterans are behind bars. That’s a concerning trend for those involved with a growing movement to give service members a second chance.

With talks in Rochester of similar reforms, it’s worth taking a closer look at how nearby communities have turned to the veterans specialty court model.

On the second Wednesday of each month, a group gathers in a courtroom for the La Crosse Area Veterans Court. Veterans are involved every step of the way, from the judge on down.

“When I first came in the program, I was very defiant. How could I find myself in trouble?”

Sentiments like that aren’t uncommon for veterans court. Chris Griffin said he’d lost his way when the possibility of taking this alternative became a reality.

Like other problem solving courts, the goal is to keep people out of jail. A rigorous counseling routine targets what many believe is a root cause of veterans ending up in criminal court.

“It’s a lot of work with some of these veterans,” said Judge Todd Bjerke. “Mental health really takes a toll on them.”

Judge Bjerke rules over this court. A veteran himself, he knows each case well – talking to participants like a concerned friend pushing for change. Now in its eighth year, the La Crosse program uses a mentor system. It’s a confidential vet to vet conversation.

As Griffin explains, it’s a journey of self-exploration: “everything that is going on with me. All my fears. All my concerns.”

Making regular trips to the courthouse helps former soldiers remember they’re not alone.

“It really starts to open their eyes up,” said Judge Bjerke. “Because right now they think they’re on this addiction side, or on this mental health side, and they think they’re the only one.”

Veterans in Southeast Minnesota don’t have this option, but that could change. Olmsted County Attorney Mark Ostrem is on a team working to bring a veterans court to Minnesota’s third judicial district.

“When you really think of that combat trauma, that experience and what we’ve expected of these folks when we deployed them, I think they’re deserving of that little extra favoritism,” Ostrem said.

Ostrem believes there would be plenty of interest in a court for the region which spans from Owatonna to Winona. Developers have been using the fifth judicial district model based in Mankato as a guide. The hope is to launch an inaugural class in 2019.

Critics argue veterans courts take up valuable resources that could go to all veterans, not just the ones caught up in the justice system. But Ostrem says securing a federal grant would pass virtually no cost to the counties involved.

Those who’ve stuck with the program from the beginning say the results are worth it.

“When we get people to a point where they’re afraid to go back to who they were, then they’re really invested to move forward,” Judge Bjerke said.

Griffin is set to become the La Crosse Court’s latest graduate before the end of the year. He’s taking the time now to reflect on his journey.

“I’m no longer dependent upon drugs and alcohol to cope with life in general,” he said. “There’s nothing that we can do to change what has happened in the past. The future is not here. It’s all about today, and dealing with today, because today is all we really have.”

Jacob Murphey

Jacob Murphey

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