Cole County circuit court considering adding ‘veterans treatment’ court

Judge Pat Joyce asks questions regarding information provided by a participant in DWI Court. One of the requirements from attendees of Cole County’s DWI Court is to write on paper the things that have happened to or affected them since their last visit. They can write down a number of feelings or actions they’ve felt, taken or not taken.

Judge Pat Joyce asks questions regarding information provided by a participant in DWI Court. One of the requirements from attendees of Cole County’s DWI Court is to write on paper the things that have happened to or affected them since their last visit. They can write down a number of feelings or actions they’ve felt, taken or not taken. Photo by Julie Smith.

Alternative treatment courts “save money, save lives and restore families,” Cole County Presiding Circuit Judge Patricia Joyce said last week. “They keep people out of prison.”

And she hopes the Cole County courts will launch a specialized veterans court by next spring.

Last spring, Missouri’s General Assembly gave the circuit courts specific authority to create a “Veterans Treatment” court program as an alternative to jail or prison, in addition to the existing drug and DWI treatment courts.

Gov. Jay Nixon signed the bill in July, and it went into effect Aug. 28.

Among its provisions, the law says: “A veterans treatment court shall combine judicial supervision, drug testing, and substance abuse and mental health treatment to participants who have served or are currently serving the United States Armed Forces, including members of the reserves, national guard or state guard.”

And the law allows a veterans court to accept a participant from a different area from where the crime was charged, either because the veteran lives where the treatment court is or the area where the crime was charged doesn’t have a veterans court.

Joyce, who has been working with alternative courts for at least a dozen years, said last week: “We have had veterans in our courts probably since the beginning, (but) we’re looking at the numbers (of veterans) right now. We have been gathering information off and on, when we have any in jail. We’ve had a good liaison with the Veterans Administration, which does the treatment.”

She said they would need “10 to 15 people who might qualify for it” on an ongoing basis, in order to establish a separate program from the existing alternative courts.

Joyce said they also are considering including veterans charged with misdemeanors, which hasn’t been done in the past, “to get them before they come to the felony level.”

Navy veteran Greg McSpadden currently is working with a treatment court, and told the News Tribune the judges should add a veterans court.

“The recidivism rate among veterans in veterans courts is the lowest of anybody who goes to these court-appointed programs — which means the veterans take to it better than anybody else,” he said. “The bottom line is, veterans talk a different language and they relate better (to each other). Even in AA (Alcoholics Anonymous), a lot of veterans don’t care for open meetings with civilians — but they open up a lot more with other vets.”

Treatment courts are not social clubs that people rush to join.

They were created to help people with criminal charges being filed against them, primarily because of alcohol or drug use and abuse.

And they serve as an alternative to sending those people to prison.

“It doesn’t work for everybody,” Assistant Cole County Prosecutor Steven Kretzer said last week. “But, for those that it does work for, I’ve seen drastic changes in their lives, their criminality and their criminal behavior.”

Kretzer is the prosecutor’s liaison to all existing Cole County treatment courts.

“I was a drug court convert,” he explained, noting: “When I first became a prosecutor, I wasn’t the biggest fan. And then I got assigned to be the liaison, I think back in 2009, and I just started seeing how it was working.”

In her first speech to the Missouri Bar after becoming the state Supreme Court’s chief justice, Mary Russell said in September that one of the changes and improvements in Missouri’s courts in recent years “has been the identification of areas in which the courts’ traditional ‘one size fits all’ approach has given way to a broader, problem-solving approach. … Each of these specialized court dockets reflects a conscious decision to focus on the person rather than just the legal problem — with the goal of bringing permanent positive change to individual lives.”

In many ways, a veterans court would be like the existing treatment courts.

In the typical court process, there’s a schedule following the filing of charges, including various pre-trial court appearances and, eventually, a trial or guilty-plea hearing. But even in routine cases that can take months and, Kretzer said, the sentencing can so long after the crime that it’s “a distant memory for them, and then they’re getting punished for it.”

The alternative courts speed up that process, Joyce said, “load(ing) up treatment right up front. You get a lot of supervision.”

And there’s required counseling — as an individual and in groups — with mental health professionals from local agencies that have contracts with the court for the services.

“You’re dealing with behaviors — some of those are learned, some of those are addictive, some of those are situational,” Kretzer said. “A big portion of a person’s recovery is the mental health counseling and finding the resources again that help people address their issues instead of turning to that substance or turning to the the thrill of that crime — or whatever brought them into that situation.

“They’re able to get the tools or the skills to deal with those desires or needs or whatever.” But something is missing for veterans, McSpadden said.

With only 1 or 2 percent of the population even involved in the military, he said, “We’re a minority of a minority. When you take that oath to protect our country against all tyranny, both foreign and domestic … You’re doing something that a lot of Americans will not do.”

Then, if you’re in a specialized program like a treatment court, with people who don’t have that same experience, Army veteran Dennis Welschmeyer said, “I’m sure a lot of veterans just don’t like dealing with the regular civilians, because veterans deal better with veterans.” He said a separate veterans court would result with “more veterans in the system.”

Kretzer said prosecutors already consider a veteran’s service “when evaluating the charging decisions we make or the recommendations (for sentencing).”

Missouri Veterans Commission Director Larry Kay said last week the commission is working with the courts and federal Veterans Administration “to understand Missouri’s Treatment Court and Veteran Justice Outreach System, provide Treatment Court awareness to Missouri Veterans and properly and timely refer Veterans to a VA Justice Outreach Specialist.”

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