Ramsey County officially launches a veterans court Thursday that's aimed at helping veterans charged with nonviolent crimes to get their lives back on track.
St. Paul City Attorney Sara Grewing said one goal of the court is to keep veterans from returning to jail if possible. But it will also connect veterans with resources like counseling, health care and U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs benefits.
"Some of the work that we're doing helped us to take the time, step back, and learn more about what our recent combat veterans have been through and how that might impact their connections with the criminal justice program," Grewing said.
The court will serve 25 veterans at a time. Kim Bingham, assistant director of the criminal division of the Ramsey County Attorney's Office, said applicants will be screened to gauge whether they'd be successful in the program depending partly on their criminal record and the crime of which they're accused.
After they're accepted into the program, the veterans could be placed on a number of pathways through the court, including one in which there is no finding of guilt or conviction unless the veteran fails to complete the program.
"They'll come to court initially every week so we can see how they're doing, we can see what other services they might need and hold them accountable," Bingham said.
Veterans charged with misdemeanors must attend the program for at least nine months while those charged with gross misdemeanors or felonies must attend for at least a year. Participants in the program must remain sober throughout the process.
The veterans court will also include a mentorship program. Bingham said the court will recruit mentors from across the branches of armed services.
"The comradery that military people have, we can't understand it," Bingham said. "The mentors who have been there have had that experience and enjoy that comradery. It's a very powerful thing -- they encourage people."
The program is funded over the next three years with a $350,000 federal grant and $118,000 from the Ramsey County Attorney's office. It's a collaboration between corrections agencies, prosecutors, human service agencies and community groups.