Special court in Hennepin County aims to help veterans

Waiting to enter the courtroom
Ramsey County public defender Evan Tsai, left, waits with attorney Catherine Turner, right, and Army veteran Chris Walford before entering the courtroom at the Minnesota Judicial Center in St. Paul, Minn. Wednesday, May 26, 2010. Public defenders and other volunteers offered veterans assistance with a variety of non-felony legal issues during their one-day court appearances.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

In a few weeks, a special court designed to help veterans is set to launch in Hennepin County. The court will be the first of its kind in Minnesota, and aims to help troubled veterans stay out of jail.

Standing before a judge in a wood paneled courtroom near the state capitol, Army veteran Billy Barnes swears to tell the truth.

Two pairs of eyeglasses dangle from the neck of his dark blue t-shirt. The middle-aged former soldier is tall and solidly built like the boxer he used to be.

Judge Robert Rancourt opens Barnes' hearing by swearing him in.

"Will you raise your right hand and be sworn, sir?" the judge asks from the bench. "Do you swear to tell the truth?"

Barnes agrees he will and Judge Rancourt asks him to explain how he ended up in trouble.

MPR News is Reader Funded

Before you keep reading, take a moment to donate to MPR News. Your financial support ensures that factual and trusted news and context remain accessible to all.

Barnes admits to the judge that he was loitering in the park with an open bottle when police approached, saying "and they confronted us with it and they gave us tickets for it."

That's just one of the half dozen misdemeanor charges against Barnes being heard in court on this day. Barnes pleads guilty to them all. The low level offenses are typical for people with a history of living on the streets like Barnes.

Celebrating a legal victory
Army veteran Billy Barnes gives Ramsey County public defender Erik Sandvick a high-five after Sandvick helped Barnes with some legal issues at StandDown 2010 in St. Paul, Minnesota Tuesday, May 25, 2010.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

Judges from other parts of the state say they're seeing more and more veterans landing in trouble with the law and they'd like to start their own specialty courts.

Before sentencing, Barnes' public defender Erik Sandvick asks the judge to consider that today Barnes is a new man.

"Mr. Barnes would like to point out that he has changed his life around since these events happened last summer. He tells me that he is now living in the veterans home in Hastings, Minnesota. He has received work through the veterans home at the Minnesota VA hospital in Minneapolis," he says. "He works nearly 40 hours a week there and is hoping to transition this summer into housing outside the veterans home."

Those sorts of life changes are what the new veterans court in Hennepin hopes to encourage.

Working in court for veteran's issues
Ramsey County public defender Erik Sandvick works in the courtroom during a day of hearings for veterans' non-felony legal issues at the Minnesota Judicial Center in St. Paul, Minn. Wednesday, May 26, 2010.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

For Barnes, the result is a much lighter sentence than he might have gotten otherwise -- no jail, no fines and no court costs -- as long as he stays out of trouble for the next year.

"Nothing further, thank you, Your Honor," Barnes' defender says. "Thank you for coming in today, Mr. Barnes," the judge says, "Good luck to you in the future, Sir."

What happened in this courtroom was part of an annual two-day event to support troubled veterans.

It's a scaled down version of the year-round Veterans Treatment Court launching next month in Hennepin County, which is similar to drug and other criminal courts designed to address problems, not simply determine guilt and mete out punishment.

Veteran receives assistance from public defender
Ramsey County public defender Erik Sandvick, right, looks on as Army veteran Billy Barnes asks a question before the start of hearings at the Minnesota Judicial Center in St. Paul, Minn. Wednesday, May 26, 2010. Public defenders and other volunteers offered veterans assistance with a variety of non-felony legal issues during their one-day court appearances.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

The idea is to connect veterans who commit crimes with VA and other social services so they can avoid jail.

Even before the court has started, there are already calls for similar veterans courts in other parts of the state.

"We are getting more and more veterans back and of course many are multi-tour veterans so the people that are being traumatized are being traumatized over and over," Pope County Judge Jon Stafsholt says.

The judge says he's tired of seeing veterans of multiple combat tours with PTSD or traumatic brain injury cycle through his courtroom. So he is working on a plan to set up a veterans court in his 13-county, mostly rural district.

Public defenders work with veterans
Public defenders and other volunteers worked with veterans before they had hearings for various non-felony issues at the Minnesota Judicial Center in St. Paul, Minn. Wednesday, May 26, 2010.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

"If we had a veterans treatment court available," he says, "the treatment program people would be there in court or accessible so we wouldn't have to wonder about where somebody is going to go, we would have somebody right there."

Stafsholt is part of a growing chorus from the bench and elsewhere calling for more veterans courts around the nation. While the consensus is that they work, in Minnesota it falls to judges, who are already dealing with cutbacks, to pull together the resources and get the necessary approval from the Minnesota Supreme Court Judicial Council.

State Court of Appeals Judge Renee Worke is among a group of elected officials and people in the private sector leading the charge for more veterans courts in Minnesota. She says they are needed more than ever as veterans continue to return from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with serious issues.

"If we don't get involved and deal with that on the front end," she says, "we are going to have them in the system until they are in their 40s, their 50s or their 60s, much like the Vietnam veterans."

Veterans' legal issues are heard
Hennepin County public defender Kellie Charles represents Air Force veteran William Bean during a court hearing in St. Paul, Minn. Wednesday, May 26, 2010. Public defenders and other volunteers offered veterans assistance with a variety of non-felony legal issues during their one-day court appearances.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

Worke says the courts are inexpensive because they rely on a team of existing criminal justice, social services and veterans advocates who work together on each defendant's case.

"The nice part of all of this, if you will, is that it's going to save us money in the long run," Judge Worke says.

Other veterans courts are in the works. In addition to the new court opening in Hennepin County in July, courts in Pope and Ramsey counties could open before year's end.