Toledo set to begin veterans court in JanuaryWritten by Danielle Stanton | | firstname.lastname@example.org
A Toledo court set aside for veterans is scheduled to handle its first case Jan. 1.
Judge William M. Connelly Jr. of Toledo Municipal Court will preside.
The legal process in veterans court is much like that in domestic violence and drug and alcohol dockets, which help individuals through their legal troubles. As in these specialized dockets, veterans’ legal problems are often the result of deeper mental, emotional or social issues.
The veterans courtroom is meant to not only dole out consequences for veterans who commit crimes but also intervene in their underlying issues to help them lead responsible, productive lives.
Combat troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan often suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). They may also have traumatic brain injuries, drug and alcohol problems and other psychiatric conditions. The court will identify these issues and match them up with the appropriate services.
Many veterans from the Vietnam era have been dealing with their problems for years, in and out of the criminal justice system. Now, the new court’s veterans coordinator will go into jails looking for veterans who may be candidates for the treatment court.
Veterans court will only handle misdemeanor crimes, including disorderly conduct, “self-destructive” crimes like drug possession or more serious crimes like assault. The offending veteran will have to plead guilty or no contest in order to qualify for veterans court.
A person who is drunk and yelling in the street, for example, could end up before Connelly, who said he wants to intervene as quickly as possible to prevent the boomerang effect — veterans who commit a crime, serve time and are released only to commit another crime.
“You want to stop that and … get them into services,” he said. “My hope is that we are able to intervene as early as possible and save lives of veterans who have served the country.”
This is where Veterans Affairs (VA) steps in. The agency works to match veterans with professional services, such as mental health treatment, substance abuse counseling or help with a job search.
Melody Powers, a veteran justice outreach coordinator with the VA Ann Arbor Healthcare System, is one of three coordinators who link veterans with services. Powers works with veterans courts in Jackson and Redford, Michigan.
The outreach coordinator initiates first contact with the veteran and can make referrals to the treatment court, which then supports veterans through the process.
“You see lives completely changed,” Powers said. “I’ve seen people go from no income, no home, struggling with substance abuse, struggling with relationships. After treatment, they have all those things in place: job, income, reunited with family. The courts have just been so successful.”
The VA’s Leslie Witherell, who will coordinate the Toledo court, has already been combing the jails, looking for veterans who would be a good fit for the court where the judge gets on a personal level with the veteran.
“The judge becomes interested in that person personally: ‘I heard you had a baby or got a job, good for you,’” Witherell said. “If you screw up, it’s not a punitive thing but still sanctioned. We don’t let them go. We will continue to uphold them because their issues are so unique.”
At every step of the way in the court system, the VA has the opportunity to become involved by asking, “Are you a veteran?” In Ohio, it’s “pretty standard” that those being booked into jail are asked if they’re a veteran, Connelly said; when they first appear in the court, they’re asked if they’re a veteran once again.
Once identified, the outreach coordinator performs an assessment on each veteran and then services are put in place. The ideal is to intervene before any type of regular court punishment occurs.
“I think often the Vietnam veterans have immersed themselves in work. After they retire, they start to struggle again and don’t know they’re eligible for VA care,” Powers said. “So this is a real opportunity to reach out and engage people.”
After a veteran pleads guilty in veterans court, the sentence is 18-24 months in what is a three-phase treatment program.
The misconception is that treatment court is easy but that couldn’t be further from the truth, Powers said. She called it “very intense supervision” by the court system.
For the first 45 days, or phase one, the veteran will meet with the judge every two weeks and a probation officer every week. They must keep every VA appointment and not violate any terms of their probation. The next four or five months, or phase two, allow more freedom as the veteran reintegrates into work or school. Phase three lasts 90 days, after which participating veterans graduate out of the program.
If the veteran completes treatment and does not reoffend, jail time can be dismissed. The goal is not to incarcerate, Connelly said, but jail isn’t off the table if the veteran commits an offense that warrants it.
“In the courts I’ve worked with in Southeast Michigan, anyone who has graduated the program has not re-offended,” Powers said.
The veterans often become so invested in the process, they return to court as mentors.
Michigan has 21 veteran treatment courts and Ohio has 10, including ones in Cleveland, Hamilton County, Mansfield and Youngstown. Akron, Dayton and Toledo all have courts in the same stages of development, Powers said.
In Redford District Court in Michigan, Chief Judge Karen Khalil presides over a veterans court that has processed 52 cases and has an 80 percent success rate, Khalil said.
One of the main reasons for its effectiveness is the three-phase structure the court offers to the veterans who are trained in the military way of life, she said.
“We’ve placed the structure back in their lives that they have become accustomed to in the military. It’s very rigorous and stringent,” Judge Khalil said. “They seem to thrive.
“You have to understand there’s a whole team of people monitoring everything that they’re doing. The judge is in charge, the mentor coordinator, probation department keeping track and justice outreach — so there’s a whole group of people constantly involved.”
Initially in Redford’s district court, people said the veterans were getting a “free pass,” but that is not true, Khalil said. The court is holding them responsible, she said, and that can be a struggle for them.
Defense attorney Rick Graham, who also has a private practice, advocates for the veterans before Khalil. A Vietnam veteran, Graham said helping other veterans out of their troubles is the “highest honor” that could be bestowed on him.
“Veterans are not typical defendants — they’re not drinking and using drugs to get high; they’re using to suppress memories,” Graham said. “Our court treats the symptoms: ‘How did you get here and why did you get here?’”
Graham said about 35 percent of the men and woman who have transitioned from Iraq and Afghanistan back to civilian life have some form of PTSD.
“Nobody goes to war and comes back unchanged,” he said.
A third of the veterans the Redford court sees are Vietnam veterans and a majority served in Iraq and Afghanistan. The court sees more Marines than any other branch.
The application for Toledo’s veterans court is now before the Ohio Supreme Court, Connelly said. He will begin hearing cases on Jan. 1. The first veterans to go before the court have not yet been identified.