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Veterans court earns approval in Duluth

6th Judicial District Judge Dale Harris

A newly approved court initiative will help Northland veterans access treatment for chemical dependency and mental health issues, officials said Wednesday.

The South St. Louis County Veterans Court earned an official seal of approval from the Minnesota Judicial Council last week, joining the expanding number of specialty court programs that strive for rehabilitation over incarceration.

The initiative, which started in an unofficial capacity in 2014, is a partnership between the 6th Judicial District, St. Louis County, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and other organizations that support veterans and their families.

"The goal of the program will be to ensure veterans receive the help and assistance they are owed, receive treatment for their chemical and mental health issues, and leave the program sober, law-abiding, and in a stable living condition," the Minnesota Judicial Branch reported in a news release.

The five-phase program will accept veterans charged with misdemeanors and felonies who are deemed to be in high need of services or of high risk to reoffend.

Like other speciality courts, it involves treatment assessments, regular court appearances, intensive supervision, random drug and alcohol testing, and the use of sanctions and rewards as participants progress through the program.

The court is presided over by 6th Judicial District Judge Dale Harris, who brings experience as a Navy judge advocate and a reserve judge on the Navy-Marine Corps Court of Criminal Appeals in Washington, D.C.

"Our nation, our state and our community owe a great debt to the veterans who have served our country," Harris said. "Veterans treatment courts are proven tools that ensure our veterans receive the help they need when struggling with addiction or mental illness, while holding them accountable for their actions and their recovery. I'm proud that our community has come together to launch this important program that demonstrates our commitment to our military veterans."

The court actually has operated in an unofficial capacity since early 2014, maintaining a regular calendar to meet with participants at the recommendation of the Minnesota Assistance Council for Veterans.

The initiative has operated with a small contribution from the 6th Judicial District and by sharing a coordinator with two local drug courts. Officials in 2016 began the process of seeking certification, which requires adherence to national standards and best practices, as well as required training for the judge and program staff.

The approval will allow court and county officials to pursue ongoing state funding and apply for a grant from the U.S. Department of Justice's Bureau of Justice Assistance, with the goal of hiring a dedicated program staff.

There are approximately 10,000 veterans in the southern portion of St. Louis County, according to the news release.

Treatment courts have increasingly emerged across the region and the state, with officials touting them as an effective measure to achieve long-term cost savings in the criminal justice system, reduce recidivism among participants and lead to higher rates of employment, stable housing and education.

The Duluth courthouse already maintains formal drug, DWI and mental health courts, along with an unofficial program for homeless defendants. Speciality courts also have been established on the Iron Range and in Carlton and Cook counties.

The announcement brings the first veterans court to Northeastern Minnesota. Similar programs have been established in six other locations across the state since 2010.