Veterans Treatment Court in Jefferson County
Tuesday, April 11, 2017
Posted by: Desiree van der Kleij
Returning to civilian life can be a struggle for some military veterans, particularly combat veterans and the growing number of veterans diagnosed with disorders such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Traumatic Brain Injury. For veterans battling personal demons that often stem from their wartime service, battling the legal system is the last thing they need, according to Veterans Treatment Court advocates.
Veterans Treatment Court offers a diversion program to honorably discharged veterans who have gotten on the wrong side of the law, providing those who have served their country an alternative to prosecution and a second chance.
“If you commit capital murder, we can’t help you,” Jefferson County District Attorney Bob Wortham described. “But, for lesser offenses, drug charges and many other charges, which could be the result of mental illness, like PTSD, veterans may qualify for Veterans Treatment Court. We’re here to see that justice is done. We are doing veterans justice by helping them overcome their demons.”
Veterans who participate in the program must sign a contract with the court and then follow certain steps and treatment guidelines in order to satisfy their agreement, including going to counseling for mental or behavioral issues.
Judge Kent Walston of the 58th District Court presides over Veterans Treatment Court in Jefferson County. A Naval veteran who served actively for six years, Judge Walston says he is proud to be in a position to assist the nation’s defenders, who deserve some special consideration for their innumerable sacrifices.
“We don’t give veterans special treatment,” Walston remarked. “We give them special help.”
It’s help the veterans have earned through their service, said the judge, and much of that help is provided through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), which supplies medical and psychological treatment to vets as needed through the Veterans Health Administration, since sustaining mental health is an integral part of the program prescribed by the court.
“The court takes veterans who have come in contact with the law or violated the law and have been charged with a crime,” Walston explained. “Some have mental issues, and some have behavioral issues. They are diverted to this program, and they are given counseling by the VA, whether it’s drug counseling, violence counseling, etc. There are psychiatrists available who can prescribe medication for those conditions if the occasion necessitates.”
“Veterans often have issues that are uncommon to the general population,” Wortham added. “Veterans who are arrested are identified as veterans by the jail. If we know someone who has been arrested is a veteran, we can deal with them.
“We feel these people have served us well in the military. They have problems. We need to understand and help them. They may have developed issues while in the service. The issues they have are not going to be typical issues.
“We don’t want to give them a pass. We want to give them a chance. We want to help them change unhealthy behaviors. We want everyone marching to the beat of the same drummer.”
Statistics from Justice for Vets (www.justiceforvets.org) indicates one in five veterans has symptoms of a mental health disorder or cognitive impairment, and one in six veterans who served in Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom suffer from a substance abuse issue.
“Research continues to draw a link between substance abuse and combat–related mental illness,” reports the non-profit. “Left untreated, mental health disorders common among veterans can directly lead to involvement in the criminal justice system.”
The history of Veterans Treatment Court indicates that the link between veterans’ mental health disorders and violations of the law is what led to the creation of the diversion program. Judge Robert Russell is credited with starting the first Veterans Treatment Court in Buffalo, New York in 2008 after noticing an increase in the number of veterans appearing in Drug Court and Mental Health Court there.
“Judge Russell saw firsthand the transformative power of military camaraderie when veterans on his staff assisted a veteran in one of his treatment courts, but also recognized that more could be done to ensure veterans were connected to benefits and treatment earned through military service,” according to Justice for Vets.
He contacted his local VA and called on veteran volunteers to act as sponsors to make the program a reality. The new court docket focused exclusively on “justice-involved” veterans. Now, there are more than 350 Veterans Treatment Courts in the United States.
“One thing that I love about this is that there are veterans who come here and sponsor these veterans and go through it with them,” said Judge Walston. “Each one of them who came before me yesterday (March 9) had a sponsor, who was a veteran, to go through this with them.” Having a sponsor, someone the veteran can call on when they need to talk and someone to guide them through their treatment, is a huge help to those enrolled in the program, said Walston.
The judge said Veterans Treatment Court is just for vets, but there are other diversionary courts with programs for everyday citizens that would be offered through the DA’s office. The only difference is, because of their military service, the VA provides veterans in the program free counseling. Walston said that is a fair trade considering the dangers veterans faced on the field of battle and in regular military operations.
“I was in the Navy for six years and never suffered any type of traumatic disorders, no traumatic tragedy, because I served inside the United States,” Walston shared. “We were not in any kind of war.
“I was one of the fortunate ones, so I didn’t have to worry about PTSD and the like, but I was a police officer for 10 years. It hasn’t been until recently that I have stopped dreaming about and thinking about things that I saw while I was a policeman. So, I can’t imagine the horrors they saw in the combat theater; we just can’t imagine. It stays in your mind. It stays with you for the rest of your life. And some people are better at dealing with it than others. Those people who don’t handle it well, we’re here to help them.
“That’s why I wanted to do this, because I understand personally, not the severity of trauma that they have suffered, but I do understand it. I am just honored that I’m the judge for the veterans’ court.”
Walston’s military service and time in law enforcement has given him a unique understanding of the program and its participants, which Wortham says is a boon to the court.
“Judge Kent Walston is a veteran himself,” said Wortham. “It’s a real credit to the program to have a judge who served in the military presiding over the court. He really does want to help.”
While he wants to help, Walston said, veterans participating in the program must also help themselves.
“If they just drop out or don’t show up, I’ll revoke their bond,” Walston warned. “I have the ability, if they do not follow the regimen specified by the VA and the rules and regulations set forth in the contractual agreement they made with the Veterans Court, to dismiss them from the program. Therefore, they will not be in a diversionary program; they will go to regular court.”
According to Walston, that hasn’t happened in his court.
“This is a great program, and everybody’s that’s in it so far that I have experienced is excited to be in it and grateful for the help,” he said.
Four veterans appeared before Walston March 9, each having faced criminal charges but ready to make the changes necessary to improve their lives, said the judge.
“All of them had positive attitudes and that’s indicia for success.”
He said he heard a touching story from one veteran who has been enrolled in the program.
According to Walston, “One individual who was trying to get a job when he entered the program wanted an apartment, a car and a dog, because he was in a shelter. While on this program, he got the job, the apartment, the car, and he just got his dog. He was excited and positive about completing this program and thankful for the help the VA has offered. He’s probably 24-25 years old.
“Most of us wouldn’t be content with that, but he was thankful to get that. He’s come from the bottom up.
“Like I told him, I’m here to make sure you are successful. I’ll help you if I can. If you don’t want help, and you give up, then I’ll kick you out.”
For more information about Veteran Justice Outreach programs and Veterans Treatment Courts, visit www.va.gov.
Source: The Examiner