Veterans whose struggles with civilian life land them in the criminal court system will have a new alternative to jail time in Johnson County. Beginning today, they can come to a special Veterans Treatment Court and get support and supervision from a team of court staff and mentors who will help them through a diversion program.
The special court, the first of its kind in Kansas, is scheduled to begin with an opening ceremony today at the Johnson County Courthouse. Once the flag ceremony and remarks from Kansas Chief Justice Lawton Nuss and Johnson County District Attorney Steve Howe are finished, the court will be open for its first docket of eight to 10 cases, said District Court Judge Timothy McCarthy.
McCarthy, who researched and organized the court, will hear veterans’ cases every other Wednesday afternoon.
The court is being started with a dual purpose — getting treatment for veterans who need it and reducing the population of low-level offenders doing jail time, McCarthy said. The focus will be on veterans who have developed mental health or substance abuse problems as a result of their service.
“These guys are people who developed problems in service to our country. If anybody deserves a helping hand, it’s these guys,” he said.
Veterans treatment courts are not unlike special drug courts that have popped up recently as a way to get defendants help and treatment so they won’t become repeat offenders, McCarthy said. Accused offenders must participate in a 12- to 18-month program of frequent court appearances, drug and alcohol testing and whatever other type of treatment program their counselors deem appropriate.
The difference is that the participant is surrounded in the courtroom by other veterans who are either going through the same thing or have some knowledge of what it’s like to have served in the military, McCarthy said.
Even the support team is made up mostly of people who have military connections, he said. The team includes two prosecutors, two public defenders, a probation officer, two program coordinators, an additional judge and a representative of the Veterans Administration. There are also volunteer mentors. Of that team, five are veterans and most of the rest have a close relative who has served in the armed forces, McCarthy said.
The team, comprised of people already working in the courts, meets to discuss cases for an hour every two weeks, besides attending court hearings. Veterans in the program are accompanied before the bench by a veteran mentor.
That, plus the involvement of the VA for treatment options, should make for an atmosphere that veterans can relate to and should make the odds of success more likely, McCarthy said.
In fact, other jurisdictions that have tried the courts have had good success, he said. The first one, established in Buffalo, N.Y., in 2008, reports that around 90 percent of people who complete the program do not repeat offend in the next two years, McCarthy said.
There are now 250 courts in 40 states. The Kansas City area has three — one each in Jackson and Clay counties and another one in the Kansas City municipal court system. The Jackson County veterans court has been around since August 2012, too soon for an in-depth study of repeat offenders. But Drug Court Commissioner David Fry said the court program has had a good graduation rate and a positive impact on those who have completed it.
There are some restrictions on who can be in the program. Participants must live in Johnson County and be eligible for VA benefits or Johnson County Mental Health Center services. The types of cases the court will hear are misdemeanors or lower level felony charges, such as drug or alcohol-related or domestic violence cases, he said.
Veterans who graduate from the diversion program will have their charges dismissed. Those who have already been convicted can also enter the program to have probation supervised.
Not everyone will be accepted, McCarthy said. If an applicant had an extensive criminal history before entering the military, for example, his or her case might not be accepted. The lack of an addiction or mental health problem could also be grounds for denying, he said.
“The key is, is the criminal behavior the result of service,” in the military, he said. “We’re looking for people with PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), traumatic brain injury and substance abuse issues. We want to ID those guys and get them in the program.”
To that end, everyone brought in for booking at the county jail will be asked if they have served in the military.
McCarthy became interested in veterans courts more than a year ago while looking into the possibility of starting an adult drug court. At the time, he said, court officials doubted there would be enough cases, but found out differently after they counted 62 veterans in active criminal cases and 100 more on probation.
So far McCarthy said he’s had a lot of email queries and questions from potential applicants in “greater numbers than anybody thought.” He expects that to increase as the program becomes better known.