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Grand Forks court explores possibility of establishing state's first veterans' court

While the structure of the court would not differ significantly from other specialty courts, like adult drug court or domestic violence court, a mentorship program that would connect defendants with other veterans would represent a new approach to rehabilitating a group that frequently falls through the cracks of the criminal justice system.

The Grand Forks County Courthouse, photographed on November 23, 2015, is the site of many administrative, civil, and criminal services relevant to the needs of the Grand Forks, ND community. Photo by Nick Nelson for the Grand Forks Herald.
The Grand Forks County Courthouse, photographed on November 23, 2015, is the site of many administrative, civil, and criminal services relevant to the needs of the Grand Forks, ND community. Photo by Nick Nelson for the Grand Forks Herald.
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As a former active-duty veteran, Sam Gereszek is used to speaking two languages: military-speak, and civilian-speak. Now a Grand Forks attorney, Gereszek said when he encounters offenders who are veterans, they often respond better to one language than the other.

"If a veteran and I are sitting down over a beer together or talking, there doesn't really have to be a lot spoken to know that we both know that war is hell. That's kind of a foregone conclusion between us," Gereszek said. "Sometimes an average citizen who didn't go through those events would never understand why a decision was made – to end a life or not to end a life, to go through a door or not to go through a door, decisions that can and will haunt people for the rest of their lives. And a veteran can understand that."

Northeast Central Judicial District Presiding Judge Donald Hager said that when a court doesn't recognize the different needs a veteran might have, the court system fails to effectively help them, making it easy for veterans to fall through the cracks and become repeat offenders. That's why he and Grand Forks County Court Administrator Scott Johnson – both of whom are veterans – have spent the last year working to establish the state's first veterans' court, in Grand Forks.

In that time, Hager said they have spent time meeting with other veterans' courts in the region to study their successes and what might work in Grand Forks. The local court will have to put together a proposal for the state Supreme Court, which will ultimately decide whether to green light the project. While they're still in the early phases of putting together a proposal, Gereszek said he's hopeful the court will be up and running by January.

Grand Forks also became home to the state's first domestic violence court in 2018. Hager said that with such a high concentration of veterans in North Dakota, the state's lack of a veterans' specialty court is conspicuous.

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"We have a lot of veterans in North Dakota," Hager said. "Per capita, we have a lot. So, it's trying to use that military experience to help them through it, and something that they can function in. So we have a lot of people who have returned from the Mideast, and we still have Vietnam veterans running around here, that had no help whatsoever with their issues. We've had a lot of people in a lot of wars here, so we're covering a lot."

Gereszek said veterans who enter the court system will likely be evaluated on a case-by-case basis to determine whether their offense is service-related. Service-related offenses could encompass a broad range of crime, including violent offenses, substance abuse, mental health-related offenses and more.

But the most critical part of the court likely will be its mentorship program, which will connect defendants with other veterans who can hold their feet to the fire and advocate for them to the court.

Gereszek said through his role as a founding member of of the North Dakota nonprofit Veterans Warrior Foundation, he's already reached out to several people to gauge interest in being volunteer mentors for defendants in the veterans' court.

"And, as expected, as soon as you contact them and say, 'here's what I'm thinking, is this something you'd be interested in?' every one of them has said, 'yep, sign me up, where do I go?'" he said. "Like, 'OK, well, we're not there yet, but I appreciate your enthusiasm.'"

Hager emphasized that the court will not aim to go easy on veterans. Instead, he said, it's realizing that there is a more effective way to rehabilitate them, rather than the standard approach. He said that while the veterans' court likely won't differ significantly from other specialty courts, like adult drug court or domestic violence court, the most important difference is who will be involved.

"Veterans helping veterans," Hager said. "That's what this boils down to."

Related Topics: CRIME AND COURTS
Hannah Shirley covers crime, courts and criminal justice for the Grand Forks Herald. She is a 2018 graduate of the University of Idaho and has lived and worked in Grand Forks since 2019. Prior to moving to North Dakota, she worked as a reporter for the Berkshire Record in Great Barrington, Mass., a receptionist for the Moscow-Pullman Daily News in Moscow, Idaho, and a barista in a New York City coffee shop. She can be reached by phone at (701) 780-1267 or by email at hshirley@gfherald.com.
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