Ramsey Justice Department celebrates 10 years of helping veterans reach sobriety

Two people stand for a photo
Jessica Kirby (left) and her program mentor Janet Lorenzo stand together after Kirby's graduation from the Veterans Treatment Courts program.
Kyra Miles | MPR News

After serving in the military, Jessica Kirby experienced PTSD, anxiety, depression and survivor’s guilt. She said she turned to alcohol and cannabis to numb the symptoms, but it led to her hitting a stopped car while under the influence.

She was arrested and connected with the Veterans Treatment Court program.

“I couldn’t have asked for a better opportunity to fix a problem within me than this,” Kirby said. “(It) may have been one of the worst things that ever happened to me, one of the worst things I ever did, but it was also one of the best opportunities I’ve ever had.”

Kirby graduated from the program Friday with a full crowd in attendance at the Ramsey County Courthouse to celebrate her accomplishment and also the program's 10th anniversary. Kirby joins 66 veterans who have completed the program so far.

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The Veterans Treatment Court connects prosecutors, probation officers, social workers, volunteers, judges and other justice department staff to develop strategies to help struggling military veterans.

The program is designed to hold people accountable while also understanding the particular mental health challenges veterans face, said Second Judicial District Chief Judge Leonardo Castro.

“There are serious challenges facing our veterans when they return home, particularly substance abuse psychological health problems, especially when it goes untreated,” Castro said. “Sadly, these challenges can sometimes lead to criminal or destructive behaviors.” 

A justice department survey found 60 percent of veterans in jails were suffering from a substance or mental health issue and approximately a quarter of unsheltered people in the county are veterans. This program promotes sobriety, recovery and stability.

“These courts also helped veterans reignite the pride of their service to their country. These courts save lives. But let’s not fool ourselves. It isn’t easy. It takes commitment, determination, pain and tears and time,” Castro said.

Program leaders said they are always looking for more veteran volunteers to help their fellow service people get back on their feet. Judges in the program, like Judge Nicole Starr, call for more legal and social support for veterans in hopes this program can reach more people.

“That’s how the change works here in Ramsey County. We can do better,” Starr said. “And then a small group of incredibly talented people got together and came up with and put together this Veterans Treatment Court and 10 years later, we are celebrating incredible success.”

Paul Harris, a graduate of the program, is celebrating three years of sobriety. He said this program turned his life around and it’s been great to get back to doing regular things without the influence of alcohol.

“My wife and my kids are happy with me. They’ve forgiven me. My parents have forgiven me. No back doors are closed on me. I forgave myself,” Harris said. “Giving myself a fighting chance to keep going on moving ahead.”