Local News Spotlight

New Jackson County court is especially for veterans

Updated: 2012-07-03T00:10:21Z

By TONY RIZZO

The Kansas City Star

They are the men and women who did their duty for us.

And now, acknowledging the duty society has to veterans, Jackson County officials are establishing a court especially for them.

It will offer alternatives to incarceration for some veterans charged with non-violent crimes.

“For 10 years we’ve been sending them off to fight our wars for us,” said Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker. “And it’s hard to argue that some are coming home with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) issues.”

Similar veterans courts have been successful in other areas of the country, and the Kansas City Municipal Court has been operating a veterans court since August 2009.

Jackson County’s version is a collaborative effort between the circuit court, the prosecutor’s office and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

It follows a model that Jackson County pioneered for its drug court in 1993. Instead of putting offenders on the usual criminal prosecution track, drug court focuses on substance abuse rehabilitation. Participants get treatment and job training and pledge to stay drug-free.

“The veterans court is designed to get veterans the treatment they need without the harsh edges of the criminal justice system,” said Jackson County Commissioner David Fry.

Sen. Claire McCaskill, who helped launch the drug court as Jackson County prosecutor, praised the new court at a ceremony Monday afternoon.

“It’s the very least we can do for them,” McCaskill said.

Many veterans who struggle with alcohol and substance abuse, homelessness and mental health issues end up in the criminal justice system, said James Sanders, chief of staff at the Kansas City VA Medical Center. They deserve the opportunity for a second chance, he said.

Missouri Supreme Court Judge William Price cited the explosion in incarceration rates in the United States and the associated costs and said it is clear that simply incarcerating people without addressing their underlying problems does not work.

“I’m flat out convinced this is one of the best things Jackson County can do,” Price said.

Baker said the court will have the capability of handling up to 60 cases at a time.

People charged with crimes such as sex offenses, intoxicated driving resulting in injuries or death, drive-by shootings or murders will not be eligible, she said.

“It’s not a program for all veterans,” she said. “We have to balance our duty to veterans with our duty to victims.”

The court will focus on intervention and treatment.

In some cases, veterans will be offered diversion, which means if they successfully complete the program, charges will be dismissed. Others will be offered services as part of their probation after being found guilty.

Baker said she couldn’t say how many veterans have been prosecuted in Jackson County in recent years because that factor has never been tracked by the court or her office.

One case in Raytown earlier this year convinced Baker of the need for such a program.

Iraq war veteran Robert Long was killed by police in January after brandishing a firearm. Long, 26, was preparing for another deployment to Afghanistan.

Baker said that his family told her that he had been struggling with problems after that first deployment and that he was a “different man when he came home.”

“That case made me start thinking that we can do something better,” she said.

To reach Tony Rizzo, call 816-234-4435 or send email to trizzo@kcstar.com.

Deal Saver Subscribe today!

Comments

The Kansas City Star is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

The Kansas City Star uses Facebook's commenting system. You need to log in with a Facebook account in order to comment. If you have questions about commenting with your Facebook account, click here