Some of Christian County’s top ranking court officials hope a new program will help veterans who run afoul of the law.
Missouri’s 38th Judicial Circuit, which encompasses all of Christian County, is set to launch a veterans court program in the coming months. Veterans court will take on the cases of veterans accused of crimes who also suffer from alcohol and/or drug addictions or mental health issues. Christian County presently has a drug treatment court and a DWI court, both of which may receive qualified cases.
“A veterans court is very similar to those treatment courts, except obviously its focus is on the needs of the veteran,” Presiding Judge Laura Johnson said.
Establishing a veterans court in Christian County has been a personal goal for Johnson for more than a year. On Jan. 30, stakeholders met in a jury room tucked behind a courtroom on the second floor of the Christian County Justice Center in Ozark. The judge hosted prosecuting attorneys, Missouri Division of Probation and Parole staff, employees of the circuit clerk’s office, a Missouri Alternatives Counseling and Education representative and U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs employees for a meeting to hammer out details.
Johnson said veterans court could offer several advantages over Christian County’s existing drug treatment court program, namely when it comes to resources available from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
“We will immediately get them involved in whatever services are available to them,” Johnson said.
The court program can maximize the resources available to veterans who agree to undergo treatment for addiction or for other mental health issues.
Regionally, Greene, Stone, Barry and Lawrence counties have veterans court programs. Douglas County is part of a regional program called SEMO Veterans Court, according to information obtained through the Missouri Courts.
Missouri Supreme Court Chief Justice Zel Fischer brought up veterans court programs in the 2019 State of Judiciary Address to members of the Missouri Senate and House of Representatives.
“Some of our treatment courts focus on an offender’s underlying issue, but one focuses on a unique population – our veterans. As you know, one of the primary rules of battle is not to leave anyone behind. But that guiding principle is just as important off the battlefield,” Fischer said.
Veterans who return home from a combat deployment, or even non-combat assignments, may develop mental health issues upon returning to civilian life.
“It is incumbent on us to make sure the justice system for which they have sacrificed recognizes their unique challenges and does not leave them behind,” Fischer said.
Seeking veterans as mentors
Veterans court also has a mentoring and community involvement component.
“The thing I really like about veterans courts is the mentor program, which is not utilized in any other treatment court,” Johnson said.
The 38th Circuit will reach out to veterans in the community to sign on to serve as mentors for the people who proceed through veterans court. Johnson said the veterans will undergo about three days of initial training.
“They have to go through a fairly extensive training,” Johnson said, “but then they’re partnered one-on-one with their participant.”
The mentors function similarly to a sponsor in a 12-step addiction treatment program. Effort will be made to partner court participants with a mentor who has dealt with and overcome similar experiences and hardships in their past. The mentor serves as, “a friend and a stabilizing influence,” to help the court participants through their court case and additional treatment programs, Johnson explained.
The process to find potential mentors is underway. The initial volume of veterans court participants is likely to be low, but Johnson hopes Christian County will be prepared to take any cases that qualify.
“I’m hoping that we’ll have more people sign up to be a mentor than we’ll have participants. I’ve already had some veterans express an interest in doing that, so I’m really excited about that,” Johnson said.
The screening process
The process of sending a person into the veterans court program starts after they are arrested and/or charged with a crime. The judge has been working with the sheriff’s deputies who work in the Christian County Jail to start the process of identifying candidates for veterans court.
“The jail staff has been very cooperative about identifying inmates as veterans. That’s the first thing that you have to do. You have to make sure that you have identified the veterans in your system, and they don’t always self-identify,” Johnson said.
Sometimes, an inmate who never served as a veteran will lie and identify themselves as a person who served in the military.
Marcy Van De Berg, the Veteran Justice Outreach Coordinator with the Veterans Health Care System of the Ozarks, will serve as the primary liaison between the VA and the Christian County Jail.
Some veterans qualify for services from the VA, but have never applied for them.
Incarcerated veterans are not eligible to access VA care while they are behind bars, but the veterans court program could help set them up for medical care upon release from jail.
Johnson said that the veterans court bylines have been written to be as inclusive as possible, though persons accused or convicted of certain types of crimes—such as sex offenses—will be excluded.
Veterans court will be an 18-month treatment program which will cost the offenders who go through it $1,800, though Judge Johnson said in the meeting Jan. 30 that cost should not be a preventative measure to exclude veterans who qualify.
Christian County veterans court seeks mentors
If you are a veteran interested in helping other veterans or to find out more about becoming a veterans court mentor, contact the Missouri 38th Judicial Circuit office.