Justice Scott – Court could offer extra help to vets

Cohron: Program would go ‘the extra mile’

Posted: Sunday, March 30, 2014 1:00 am

By DEBORAH HIGHLAND The Daily News dhighland@bgdailynews.com 783-3243 | 0 comments

Kentucky Supreme Court Justice Will T. Scott, a decorated Vietnam War veteran, understands perhaps better than some judges the unique challenges and needs of combat veterans who encounter Kentucky’s legal system.

“The wounds of war have changed,” said Scott, who is the task force commander for the Veterans Subcommittee of the Kentucky Supreme Court Access to Justice Commission, which was set up by Kentucky Chief Justice John D. Minton Jr.
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“I spent a year in Vietnam. Most of your wounds had exterior indicators. There were flesh and wound piercings. … Starting in the early 2000s, the wounds of war changed. The IED’s (improvised explosive devices) came into play in Iraq and Afghanistan,” he said.

Now, veterans are returning with brain injuries.

In a nation that has been at war for more than a decade, the number of veterans is rising along with the number of veterans who encounter the criminal justice system, prompting Kentucky and several other states to begin Veterans Treatment Courts.

The first such court in Kentucky was established in Jefferson County and has officially been going for one year there. Hardin County followed. Fayette and Christian counties have carved out slots from their drug courts to establish veterans courts, and there is interest in starting a veterans court in Warren County.

“Fifteen years ago, we would periodically have (veterans) in our court systems,” Warren County Commonwealth’s Attorney

Chris Cohron said. “Obviously, since the length of time that we have had people in combat zones and returning, we have seen both men and women veterans, unfortunately, enter into the criminal justice system. Obviously, as troops are drawing down, we are seeing more and more individuals. We are going to be dealing with more and more veterans having to adapt to civilian life.”

Need to serve veterans grows

Between July 16, 2010, and Feb. 18, 2014, 16,778 people were arrested and booked into jail in Warren County and completed a pretrial services interview in which they answered a variety of questions about themselves. Of those interviewed, 481 told the court they were veterans. Of those 481 veterans, 170 veterans had seen combat, according to the Administrative Office of the Courts. Comparatively, in Jefferson County for that same time period, out of 115,114 people arrested and interviewed, 5,856 of those reported to the court they were veterans. Of those veterans, 2,261 had seen combat.

“Due to their service to our country, it can leave residual problems like substance abuse and entail health issues,” Cohron said. “So with a veterans court, we want to be able to apply the resources out there available for veterans to help them with these issues.

“Our goal is hopefully never get to the point where incarceration is needed (and) address the problems quickly before they commit criminal offenses that will only lead to full prosecution and incarceration,” he said.

Establishing a Veterans Treatment Court is “going the extra mile for the men and women who have served our country (and) is the least we can do,” Cohron said.

The court may not be appropriate in all matters, Scott said.

“The concept is in appropriate cases where we can work with a Veterans Justice Outreach Officer and the Veterans Administration to achieve a better, quicker result for that veteran,” Scott said. “But there are some cases where you just don’t do this. These are calls that will be made on a local level. It’s a team effort.

“The genesis for it is the change in the wounds of war. We are just getting a new type of war injury that we weren’t able to cope with before. It’s the concussive effect of all these IEDs. The concussive blow is unbelievable.” Scott said.

Multiple deployments create challenges

In Christian County, where Fort Campbell straddles the Kentucky/Tennessee line, Christian Circuit Judge Andrew Self saw a need for the courts to help veterans address the root cause of their problems to hopefully avoid costly incarceration when they run afoul of the law.

“Unfortunately, sometimes (veterans) find themselves in the criminal justice system,” Self said. “There are multiple challenges and multiple issues that need to be diagnosed.

“We’ve had extended, long-term multiple deployments by a lot of soldiers,” Self said. “The cumulative effect of that is pretty profound.”

Many people in Christian County recognized a need for veterans court, Self said.

“We became aware that veterans courts modeled after our very successful drug courts were starting to emerge throughout the United States,” he said. “We’ve had tremendous community support.”

The veterans courts work similar to a drug court where treatment is used to reach the goal of helping veterans stay out of the criminal justice system and lead productive lives. The separate setup is needed because veterans have problems specific to their military service such as brain injuries or post-traumatic stress disorder and may also have a substance abuse issue as well. Veterans who have been honorably discharged also have access to a wide range of services through the VA that civilians are not qualified to receive. The veterans courts work directly with the VA to make sure that veterans receive all of the treatment options available to them.

“We don’t want any veteran in Kentucky to receive anything less than the full service that they are entitled to,” Minton said.

Veterans court requires willingness on the part of the veteran.

“Somewhat like our drug court model, we will try to get them on a treatment track. As long as those individuals are willing to work with us, we will be willing to work with them,” he said.

A judge must request a veterans court

Connie Neal, general manager for the Kentucky Administrative Office of the Courts Department of Statewide Services Division of Drug Courts, is working with judges at their request to set up veterans courts.

Here’s how the process works for individual courts. Neal doesn’t recruit judges to start the process. She waits for a judge to come to her.

“Normally a judge will call and say, ‘I’m interested in a Veterans Treatment Court,’ ” Neal said. “At that point I will advise the judge he has to have a 10-member team.”

The 10-member team is a judge, a prosecutor, a Department of Public Advocacy defense attorney, a treatment provider, a Veterans Justice Outreach coordinator, a program coordinator that would normally be the drug court coordinator, a community supervision agency that for this purpose would be a drug court case manager, a law enforcement officer, a mentor coordinator and a clinician from the Veterans Administration. Then Neal conducts a brief, modified training for the team, which later has to attend a national training process that is conducted by the National Drug Court Institute. Neal also writes grants to help fund some costs.

“There is no set timetable for establishment of a Veterans Treatment Court in Warren County; however, I am confident that staffing the court with participants from the prosecutorial, DPA, and judicial standpoint will not be an issue,” Cohron said.

The program is so new to Kentucky that no one has yet graduated from Veterans Treatment Court in Jefferson County.

“Our oldest program has only been going for a year,” Neal said. “We don’t have any graduations yet. They didn’t take their first client until December 2012, and it’s an 18-month program. Of the 14 clients that have entered the Jefferson County program, we’ve only terminated one.”

“This is an awesome project,” Neal said. “And, I think Kentucky is doing great things for our veterans, and this is just one piece of it.”

— Follow news editor Deborah Highland on Twitter at twitter.com/bgdnnewseditor or visit bgdailynews.com.

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