NORMAN — Court programs assist those who served America
Cleveland County officials want no veteran needing help to be left behind — even those who have had a brush with the law.
Veterans may come home to a hero’s welcome, but those happy homecomings don’t mean their lives will transition smoothly. Some veterans suffer from issues such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and depression.
The U.S. Dept. of Veterans Affairs, National Center for Veterans Analysis and Statistics estimates there are around 23 million veterans in the nation. Of those, some eventually come into conflict with the law and end up in jail and the court system. In response, veterans court programs have begun springing up to help veterans with mental health and substance abuse issues and to connect them with resources.
The first veteran’s court opened in Buffalo, N.Y., in 2008, according to the National Center for State Courts (ww.ncsc.org). Tulsa County’s Veterans Treatment Court was the first in Oklahoma and the third in the United States. Judge Sarah Day Smith called the initial Tulsa Veterans Treatment Court docket on Dec. 8, 2008. The program’s success is one many other counties and states want to emulate.
In August, officials from across the nation visited Tulsa to learn more about the program. Cleveland County is among those who hope to use Tulsa’s model in creating a local veterans court.
“What we’ve started to do is to identify them (veterans),” said Julia Curry, Oklahoma Court Services director. “A lot of guys had no idea there’s resources out there they might be eligible for.”
With the help of the Cleveland County Sheriff’s Office staff at the jail, Curry is identifying and contacting veterans who have been imprisoned. While an actual veterans court is at least 60 days down the road, Curry’s staff has already begun connecting veterans with resources through Veterans Corner and through the Office of Veterans Affairs, working with Joe Dudley, the veteran’s resource specialist.
The veterans treatment court in Tulsa County, after which Cleveland County’s will be modeled, is a collaborative effort among the 14th Judicial District Tulsa County Drug/DUI Court, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Tulsa County District Attorney’s Office, Tulsa County Public Defender’s Office, Human Skills and Resource Supervision, Tulsa County Court Services, ACE Recovery Services and others.
The obstacle in Cleveland County is money.
“We have been part of the planning,” district attorney Greg Mashburn said. “The frustrating part is I don’t know if we’ll have the funding to do something like that. “
Mashburn said his office would have to add staffing to implement the program, but with current levels of funding, veterans court may not be possible.
Right now, Cleveland County has drug court, mental health court, community sentencing, juvenile drug court and a special domestic violence program, all of which require time from the DA’s staff.
“All of those services are still available to veterans,” Mashburn said. “Programs are available to them, they just don’t have a mentor that’s a veteran, but they do still qualify for those other programs.”
Cooperation and partnerships in Cleveland County are already bringing some assistance to the county’s incarcerated veterans. Curry said deputies at the jail have been a big help. The current database at the jail does not include information on veteran status, but deputies and staff are asking people being booked if they are veterans and are keeping a list.
Identification is the first step in seeing if a veteran qualifies for resources through Veterans Affairs or other sources.
Veterans court is similar to drug court and mental health court programs where nonviolent offenders are put through rigorous programs with phased levels of supervision and a host of support service to deal with the underlying issues that contributed to their criminal activity such as alcohol or drug abuse or mental health problems. Compliance with these programs is offered as an alternative to incarceration.
Veterans court will be voluntary as well.
“It’s a phased program like drug court with the addition of mentoring,” Curry said.
Mentors are vets who go through special training. They serve as counselors and friends, even attending court with their assigned veterans.
“It was fascinating to me to learn the value of that relationship,” Curry said.
Meanwhile, Curry said her staff is making sure the veterans currently in jail are getting connected with the resources currently available to them.
Military Times reported in 2011 that more than 50 veterans courts are been created since the first programs started in 2008. The programs help veterans regain the camaraderie and discipline they had during their terms of service in order to get their lives back on track and to integrate into the civilian world.