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Senate panel considers "veterans' courts

Senate panel considers "veterans' courts

February 12th, 2013 in News

Veterans' needs may be different from those of other people charged with crimes, so Missouri should have a statewide system of veterans treatment courts, state Sen. Will Kraus told the Senate's Judiciary Committee Monday evening.

"These are modeled after the drug treatment courts (that are) highly successful," Kraus, R-Lee's Summit and an Army veteran, told the panel. "We believe this is the right way to take care of our veterans who have issues - 27 other states currently have this kind of legislation."

Like Missouri's existing drug and DWI courts, the veterans treatment courts would take people charged with crimes and - instead of pursuing normal case procedures, convictions, punishments and sentences - a veteran could be diverted to a treatment court and given extra counseling, training, mental health assistance and regular visits with a judge, all in an effort to change his or her behavior.

But, because of issues specific to the military life and work, such as combat-related PTSD, supporters say the veterans courts offer assistance not available in other parts of the justice system.

In most cases, the courts are reserved for first-offenders whose crimes aren't considered major felonies.

Successful completion can allow the pending charges to be dropped or modified.

"This is a tool that the prosecutor and circuit court can use," Kraus told the committee. "It doesn't, necessarily, mean that they have to use it."

In the existing court programs, people who are motivated to change are the most successful, so some people charged with a crime are determined to be unfit for the treatment courts' more rigorous programs.

Several senators wondered why a new treatment court is needed, when the programs for drug abusers and alcoholic drivers already exist.

Kraus said veterans' experiences - particularly if they've been involved in combat, which most people understand is different than life and its stresses are at home - "can be looked at in the fact that their military history is different from a "normal' individual."

Missouri already has four veterans treatment courts - in the Jackson County circuit court, in Kansas City's municipal court, in St. Louis City circuit court and in a consortium of counties in the Cape Girardeau area.

Dewey Riehn, Ashland, is legislative chairman for the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Missouri, and a legislative committee member of the Missouri Association of Veterans, which represents 28 different groups serving 220,000 Missouri veterans and spouses.

"The thing that concerns the veterans groups is that there's no standardization (among the courts)," he testified.

"If we are going to have veterans courts in Missouri - and they are needed badly - there should be some standardization of the model to be used.

"And the way to do that is to get it codified into statutes."

If that happens, he added, veterans believe some federal money could help pay for their operations.

Since Missouri has only four veterans courts today, Kraus' bill also has a feature allowing a veteran charged in a county that doesn't have a court, to have his or her treatment to be transferred, "assuming the prosecutor and everybody agrees, to an area that actually has one."

Randy Scheer, a lobbyist for the Missouri Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, noted its members' "experience with the drug courts is extensive, and we find that - when the court has a specialized docket - they deal with these types of issues on a very efficient, effective basis."

Rita Linhardt of the Missouri Catholic Conference noted that some veterans courts in the nation use other people from the veteran's service branch to act as a mentor in the treatment process.

No one testified against Kraus' bill, and the Senate committee took no action on it Monday.

State Rep. Jay Barnes, R-Jefferson City, has sponsored a similar bill, which was heard in a House committee last week - but also still must be endorsed for floor debate.