St. Louis County Judge working to start Duluth's first veterans - KBJR 6 Your Weather Authority: News, Weather & Sports

St. Louis County Judge working to start Duluth's first veterans treatment court

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DULUTH, MN -

Saint Louis County has among the highest veteran populations in the state at about 17,000.

Ten thousand of those veterans live in southern Saint Louis County, and unfortunately, a number of them end up in the court system. 

According to court studies, in 20-16, there were 31 veterans arrested on felony charges, 29 of them suffering from substance abuse disorders and 25 required mental health treatment.

One Duluth judge has been working to address those underlying issues, and now has the go-ahead to establish a veteran's treatment court. 

District Court Judge Dale Harris doesn't like seeing the same faces in his courtroom again and again and as more and more veterans came through his doors, he decided to look at the underlying reasons.

"Eventually we got a few more players involved, and it started looking more and more like a specialty court," he said.

He partnered with Minnesota Assistance Council for Veterans, St. Louis County, and Duluth Police to name a few and after working together for years, they decided to make it official.

Now, with judicial council approval, Judge Harris is working to establish a Veterans treatment court in Duluth.

"The population tends to be high risk, high need and that's the group we're going to focus on," he said.

St. Louis County is no stranger to treatment court - we have mental health court, DWI court and drug treatment court, but those involved in Veteran's treatment court say the difference is in the way they talk about it.

According to MAC-V northern regional leader Kevin Beichler, "Veterans have their own language."

Tapping into that shared culture, Judge Harris said the court's structure mirrors military experience.

"My role as a judge is kind of similar to being a commanding officer where I try to tell them what the expectations are and hold them accountable for it but then also go to bat for them when we need to," he said.

Only, he said the commands are very different.

"Their new mission is to get themselves clean and sober and get themselves treatment," Judge Harris said.

Beichler said this kind of structure is not only helpful to recent combat veterans but addresses one of the issues often linked to mental health or substance abuse

"You come back to the states, it's a different world because that skill set that you have downrange doesn't necessarily fit within society, but then on top of that you have a bonding that lasts forever," he said. 

Judge Harris shares those bonds as well.

"I'm a retired Navy Judge Advocate, I retired a little over a year ago and my son is at the Naval Academy," he said.

Judge Harris is hoping for a federal grant to establish this formal Veterans Court by October. He said he'll continue to operate the informal version until then.

There are currently seven veterans courts across Minnesota, in Hennepin, Washington, Anoka, Ramsey, Blue Earth, Carver, and Clay and Becker Counties, but this would be the first in the Northland.

Here's a look at how what the court would look like.

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