Veterans facing minor criminal charges will have a second chance with Forsyth County’s new veterans treatment court that starts in October.
The court provides an opportunity for defendants who have served in the military to get treatment for a mental illness or a substance-abuse problem over a period of time. If they comply with treatment recommendations, prosecutors can voluntarily dismiss their criminal charges. The court operates in much the same way as an adult drug-treatment court or a mental-health court, which Forsyth County has had since 2012. Forsyth would be the fourth North Carolina county to have a veterans treatment court. Buncombe, Cumberland and Harnett counties have veterans treatment courts, according to the N.C. Administrative Office of the Courts. Justice for Vets, a Virginia-based nonprofit, said there are at least 220 veterans treatment courts in the United States.
The program received a $76,855 federal grant through the Governor’s Crime Commission for two years, Chief District Judge Lisa Menefee said. Forsyth District Judge David Sipprell, who served as a lawyer in the U.S. Air Force, will preside over the court. He said court officials hope to hire a veterans treatment court coordinator by Oct. 1.
Assistant District Attorney Harold Eustache and Casey Shillito, an assistant public defender, are both military veterans and assigned to the veterans treatment court.
Veterans Helping Veterans Healing, a 24-bed transitional housing program for male veterans, is involved with developing the veterans treatment program and will help train veteran mentors who volunteer with the court.
Brian Hahne, director of operations for VHVH, said many veterans went into military service when they were 18 and might not have been diagnosed with a mental illness. Many of the men Hahne works with have said military service gave them discipline, structure, purpose and a sense of mission. But the real challenge came when they left the service, Hahne said.
Hahne said many veterans don’t have the safety net or support system to help them deal with the loss of a job or the collapse of a marriage. Some end up struggling with drug addiction, he said.
“Unfortunately, for some, that leads them down to the justice system,” he said.
That’s where the veterans treatment court could help, supporters say. Instead of throwing these veterans in jail over minor criminal offenses, the veterans treatment court gets them the help and the resources they need to get their life back on track, they say.
Sipprell said some veterans may be dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder or they may have gotten hooked on pain medication due to injuries they got during active military service.
Menefee said that could have a significant impact on behavioral health.
Sipprell said court officials have a moral obligation to help defendants who have served their country.
“If people are dealing with issues because they served their country, we owe it to them and their service to step up and make sure they are whole,” he said.
Hahne said he has visited the veterans treatment court in Harnett. He said what impressed him the most is the fact that the first thing court officials did was honor a defendant’s military service.
“We’re trying to do the same thing here, reminding our men of who they are,” he said about his program.
Sipprell and Hahne said another critical component of the program is mentors. Sipprell said he wants a large pool of veteran mentors that can be matched with participants in the veterans treatment court.
Veterans are more likely to open up to other veterans, he said.
Hahne said it’s important for participants to have a mentor to work alongside them so they can reach their goals.
Time is also an important element, Hahne said. VHVH provides a two-year window so that veterans can make small steps to independent living, he said. And the veterans treatment court operates the same way, he said.
“They really slow the guys to focus on small steps and celebrate those small steps before they move to the next stage,” he said. “I think that’s really important and fundamental.”
Kaye Green, the director of the VA Medical Center in Salisbury, said she is excited about the new veterans treatment court in Forsyth County.
“The Veterans Treatment Court will help link those men and women who have served our country, with the programs, benefits and services they have earned,” she said in an email. “The goal of the Veterans Justice Outreach (VJO) program is to avoid the unnecessary criminalization of mental illness and extended incarceration among veterans by ensuring that eligible, justice-involved veterans have access to Veterans Health Administration (VHA) services, as clinically indicated.”
Sipprell said the purpose of the court is to help these veterans with whatever issues they may have that landed them in the criminal justice system.
“When they graduate, they’re back on their feet and squared away and we won’t see them again,” he said.
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