Grand Forks court to establish North Dakota's first veterans treatment court
Kim Higgs, veterans treatment court coordinator, expects the court to start seeing cases late this summer.
GRAND FORKS — A new special court in Grand Forks will be the first in North Dakota specifically for veterans.
On April 19, a North Dakota Court System interdisciplinary committee approved the Northeast Central Judicial District to start the state’s first veterans treatment court. Rather than relying on punishment and incarceration to prevent crime, the court targets behavior, which is where the treatment aspect of the court comes in. Kim Higgs, veterans treatment court coordinator, expects the court to start seeing cases late this summer.
Higgs says many veterans, especially those who had long deployments or multiple deployments overseas in combat situations, struggle with PTSD after returning from service, and many struggle with substance abuse and alcoholism.
“How many people in other courts are missing a limb because of war or have lost an eye because of war?” said Higgs. “You’re dealing with a few other things here than normal.”
Veterans treatment courts are designed to better serve people struggling with these underlying issues than traditional court proceedings.
“‘Treatment’ means here that we’re not only looking at what caused them to come before the judge,” said Higgs. “We’re also going to be putting into play other help, so we'll get them hooked into the Veterans Service Office if they haven’t done that yet, we’ll see if they qualify for benefits through the VA.”
Mental health support and substance abuse programs also fall under the umbrella of treatment.
While in the program, each veteran is matched with a volunteer mentor who is also a veteran, to help motivate and boost the morale of those in court. The court is designed with military structure in mind.
“A lot of the veterans are used to military structure and that gives them more substance to hold on to than, as they say, winging it by themselves,” said Higgs.
Higgs is a veteran, and so are Northeast Central Judicial District Presiding Judge Donald Hager, and Unit 1 Administrator Scott Johnson, all involved in the planning and soon running of the veterans treatment court. According to the Northeast Central Judicial District, the veteran population in Grand Forks County in 2020 was 5,500, or 9.3% of the population, and in Nelson County was 250, or 8.3% of the population.
The Northeast Central Judicial District is already home to three other specialty courts — domestic violence court, juvenile court and adult drug court, and the veterans treatment court has a similar structure. A traditional court has a judge, jury, prosecutor and defense attorneys, but a veteran accepted into VTC makes regular court appearances with a judge, two attorneys, a mentor and the VTC coordinator to track progress in the treatment program. Higgs says the veterans treatment court will not see any felony cases, like attempted murder or murder.
The program will be around a year long, says Higgs, and upon successful completion, veterans will receive a challenge coin, following the history of unit commanders awarding challenge coins to unit members in recognition of an achievement.
The court in Grand Forks will follow the model and standards for veterans treatment courts set by Justice for Vets, an organization that provides resources and training for courts interested in starting a VTC. Since it was established in 2010, the organization has helped establish more than 250 veterans treatment courts across the United States.
North Dakota is one of the last states in the United States to adopt a veterans treatment court. Most others have multiple, says Higgs. The court will only serve the Northeast Central Judicial District, which includes Grand Forks and Nelson Counties, but Higgs hopes other judicial districts in the state will follow suit.
“The hope is that it will spread throughout the state and we will have more than one,” said Higgs.