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Missouri looks to join states expanding veteran courts

As American military operations draw down in the Middle East, officials in several U.S. states are trying to hold down the number of soldiers who show up in local criminal courtrooms and jails.

The soldiers don’t always show visible scars from the battle zone. A larger problem, say those who help treat and study them, are mental and emotional problems caused by violent bomb blasts, constant combat stress and the jarring return home to mostly civilian neighborhoods.

“A significant sacrifice falls on a tiny footprint of the population,” said James Holbrook, a University of Utah law professor who helped found the National Center for Veterans Studies at the school. “They see a whole host of issues when they come back and try to reintegrate. It’s a very isolating experience.”

Some of the troubled soldiers commit crimes, sometimes driven by mental problems or drug and alcohol abuse. But officials in an increasing number of states say that these veterans — like some drug offenders — belong in rehabilitation and counseling programs instead of behind bars.

Over the past three years, at least 27 states around the country have set up “veterans’ treatment courts,” aimed at healing instead of punishing. Missouri currently has four such courts in St. Louis, Kansas City, Jackson County and Poplar Bluff. State Rep. Jay Barnes thinks the state should be adding even more.

Barnes, R-Jefferson City, is sponsoring legislation to allow circuit courts in the state to establish such courts. The measure passed the House earlier this month and is pending before a Senate committee on veterans’ affairs.

“Seeing something like that, where folks get a second chance on life after they’ve given so much to our country, we want to replicate that on a statewide level,” Barnes said.

The first veterans’ court started in Buffalo, N.Y., in 2008. Its commissioner, municipal judge Robert Russell, also helped start the city’s drug treatment court in 1995. Russell said he got the idea for the veterans’ court after watching a Marine in his drug court be motivated to do better in treatment by talking to law enforcement officials who were also veterans.

In the years since the Buffalo court’s first hearings, similar courts have popped up in states from Alabama to Alaska. Other states — including Maine, Pennsylvania and Missouri — are looking to add more courts.

Veterans’ courts meet on a weekly basis, unlike many criminal courts. Defendants, often first-time offenders, are usually pre-approved by the judge and the prosecutor. Also in the courtroom is a liaison from the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, scheduling therapy appointments and helping former soldiers figure out which V.A. services they qualify for.

In addition to treatment, the courts also try to find veterans outside of the legal system who can befriend soldiers and relate their own experiences. For those who successfully complete treatment, some courts allow charges to be reduced or dropped.

Because treatment regimens can take a year or more, comprehensive nationwide statistics don’t exist to measure the courts’ effectiveness. Anecdotally, there are success stories.

Christopher Deutsch, a spokesman for the National Association of Drug Court Professionals, said Russell’s court has had 65 individuals complete treatment programs since it began, with no re-arrests. He also said there haven’t been any re-arrests in Texas’ nine veterans courts.

In Missouri, the Southeast Missouri Regional Veterans Treatment Court, which serves nine counties, began handling cases in September 2011. It currently has 12 people going through treatment and no one has finished the program.

The St. Louis veterans’ court has seen 10 people successfully complete treatment programs since 2010, with four people being terminated or dropping out. Fourteen more veterans are currently working through treatments.

Russell said he didn’t expect to start a national movement, but said more courts will be needed as soldiers come home.

“Many of them don’t display the physical wounds of war, but some of them return with the mental anguish of war,” he said. “It’s a matter of how we as a community and nation respond to it.”

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