Specialized Veterans Courts Focus On Treatment

Six Tennessee counties have developed special diversionary courts aimed at lending a hand and focused approach to Veterans who are struggling and find themselves on the wrong side of the law. These special Veterans Treatment Courts recognize the transition from military to civilian life is not always smooth or easily navigated and focus on providing resources and treatments that may be more effective than punishment alone.

Veterans Treatment Court was born in Buffalo, New York, in 2008. It was the idea of Judge Robert Russell, who noticed the number of Veterans in his drug and mental health courts was on the rise. He developed Veterans Treatment Court to steer Veteran-defendants charged with felony or misdemeanor non-violent criminal offenses to a specialized criminal court docket.

“We have people who desperately need the wrap-around services that Veterans Court provides,” said Davidson County General Sessions and Veterans Court Judge Melissa Blackburn. “We’ve have 250-300 people at any point in the Davidson County courts that we don’t even know need this. They won’t acknowledge that they are Veterans. They need all of those wrap-around services that Veterans Court provides, that can help them get out of the justice system successfully and on with their life. They have to have this operation stand down support.”

Wrap-around treatments can include behavioral and substance abuse therapies as well as social services that focus on housing, job skills, and more.

“You have a veteran who has a substance abuse issue or a mental health issue that didn’t come into the military with that concern,” said Edward Moss, Montgomery County VTC Director and U.S. Army, Retired. “There are circumstances that happen to them that brought that on, whether it’s as simplistic as having a surgery and getting hooked on prescription pills. Or, something as tragic as someone goes to combat and they see something so detrimental to them that it causes mental health issues. When they can’t wrestle with those mental health issues, they turn to a substance to suppress those feelings and thoughts and now we have a mental health and a substance abuse issue on top of that.”

According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, more than 1.7 million Veterans received treatment in a VA mental health specialty program in fiscal year 2018. That trauma often ranges from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) to traumatic brain injury to alcohol and substance misuse. If left untreated, Veterans can end up in the criminal justice system.

Admission Into Veterans Court

Tennessee’s six Veterans Treatment Courts are located in Blount, Davidson, Knox, Montgomery, Shelby and Williamson Counties. Although each operates a little differently, the process of connecting Veterans with the program is similar. Once someone is bonded, they are asked if they served in the military. If they answer yes, they are flagged and sent to the admissions director. When that Veteran is appointed a lawyer, the lawyer can contact the court if there is interest in joining the program. The Veteran’s lawyer fills out the admissions request, then the court accesses the Veteran’s discharge papers. If everything checks out, a request to enter Veterans Court is sent to the state prosecutor for review. The state prosecutor contacts the victim(s) to ask how they feel about this Veteran participating in Veterans Treatment Court. A victim’s response does not control the outcome, but can be persuasive. Once approved, the Veteran is given a contract to sign.

“If they sign that contract, they are brought into court,” said Jerry Easter, Director of the Shelby County Veterans Court. “The case pending against them is suspended. It’s held in abatement. We then send them to the VA Hospital, where they undergo a full psychiatric evaluation. We oftentimes send them to the University of Memphis, with whom we have a contractual relationship for an additional assessment. The information arising out of that assessment and recommendations are then brought to the full team and a treatment protocol is established for that Veteran.”

In Williamson County, the booking sheet comes from the Sheriff’s Department. It lists three questions: Did you serve in the military? Did you have an honorable discharge? Are you active duty? What branch?

“Once we receive those back, we see if they have a charge that’s a non-violent charge that is something that the district attorney would be willing to make a part of their probation that they complete the Veterans Treatment Court,” said Williamson County General Sessions Judge M.T. (Tom) Taylor.

A Focused Approach

The focus of Veterans Treatment Court is treatment and rehabilitation, not punishment.

“It’s a powerful program. I haven’t seen anyone not improve with it,” said Ted Scalise, Williamson County Veterans Treatment Court Mentor Coordinator and Air Force Veteran. “The program works for finding out why you did what you did and how you are going to overcome it.”

Veterans Treatment Court is a hands-on program that involves clinical treatment, as well as Moral Recognition Treatment (MRT). MRT is an evidence-based treatment curriculum that involves weekly workbook assignments. Williamson County Case Manager Tracy McKinney assists Veterans with MRT every week, as well as being available whenever the need arises.

“It’s just an honor for me to sit with them after they served, and have given so much of themselves, so that they can get restored to honor,” McKinney said. “The things that they have gone through are serious and they don’t always talk or process it so sometimes they end up in the criminal justice system for things that have affected them. It’s important that we give them the resources and the treatment they need while they are in the program and the after care they need, so they can get back on their feet and deal with the things that maybe they haven’t had a safe place to deal with.”

What is unique about Veterans Treatment Court is the use of mentors. Most, but not all, were members of the military themselves. That Veteran-to-Veteran aspect makes a difference in getting through to  participants.

“It was found that Veterans just don’t open up to the judge, to the attorney, to anybody in the court. It was found that if they connected with another Veteran that they open up because there is a bond between military folks,” said Ted Scalise, Williamson County Veterans Treatment Court Mentor Coordinator and Air Force Veteran.

The mentoring aspect can build trust early in the process.

“When the participants come through and I talk to them on the intake, I’m coming to them as both a coordinator, but also as a probation officer, but lastly as a Veteran to a Veteran,” said Nephtaly Feliciano, Williamson County Veterans Court Probation Officer, Veterans Court Coordinator and Retired Marine. “Because when they find out I am, too, a Veteran, I served, I’ve walked the walk, you can tell the difference. There’s a trust and there’s an immediate sense of comfort knowing that they are talking with someone whose been there because now they know that I understand when they talk about a particular problem because I’ve gone through that too.”

Mentors can also utilize the Veteran’s training when developing a program and treatment.

“At orientation, I ask them if they remember when they all graduated boot camp and they say sure,” Easter said. “I say, you remember how proud you were walking down that parade deck with your shoulders back, your head held high, looking the world in the eye? You were proud of yourself and you had respect for yourself. Well, my objective, is when you graduate this program you’ve got that same sense of self-pride, that same sense of respect, that same can-do psychology that you had when you graduated boot camp in the service.”

It usually takes participants one to two years to complete Veterans Treatment Court, and it is an intense process that takes a large time commitment each week as well as emotional investment.

“We make sure that our Veterans talk to those mentors every week and every time a Veteran comes in my court, before they leave I ask the at least once, ‘What do you need this week to be successful? What is it that you need? What is it that you don’t have?” Judge Taylor said. “And, unfortunately, they don’t believe that it could possibly be true that someone asks them that. Before they leave the court, they finally come to believe that what we really want to do is to help them.”

Housing Crisis A Widespread Problem

Another way the Veterans Treatment Court staff wishes they could help is with housing. A lack of suitable housing for Veterans is the biggest challenge for the majority of Tennessee’s Veterans Courts. Shelby County VTC Director Easter is currently working to obtain funding for housing for female Veterans, a population he said is vastly underserved.

“It makes no sense to me to take a female Veteran who has addictive issues, or any other issues, and say, ‘alright we’re going to take you and put you in this in-patient treatment environment for 45 days. I know you’ve got three kids.  I know you’ve got nowhere to put them, but you’re going to have to come into this in-patient treatment environment and not focus on your children now. You’ve got to focus on getting well.’ Nobody can do that. I want an environment in which I can bring families in and provide daycare and the tools necessary to allow the treatment options we have to work,” he said.

According to the National Veterans Foundation, over 500,000 Veterans are homeless in America each year, and hundreds of thousands more struggle with securing reliable, stable housing.

“We are an affluent county, but we have nothing here for the homeless. And every time we have a homeless vet, we rely on our sister county, Davidson County, for those resources through Operation Stand Down,” said Feliciano. “My dream is to one day write grants and to develop a plan to establish a Veterans home here in Williamson County for the purpose of treatment and services.”

If a Veteran does not have stable housing, courts are often left to make hard decisions when a Veteran-defendant is before them.

 “We end up keeping them in jail, unfortunately, and some of them end up putting their sentences in effect because they are tired of waiting, even though we tell them, look, you’re getting day-for-day while you’re sitting here. You’re not losing any time, I promise you. I would just rather you not put your sentence into effect because I want to be able to get you into the supported housing and treatment you need and I can’t do that if you put your sentence into effect,” Judge Blackburn said.

Personal and Program Success

Despite the funding struggles, it is rewarding when a Veteran puts in the hard work and graduates from the program a changed person. Veterans Treatment Court staff often hear from these Veterans long after they leave the program. What they hear often reminds them that their work matters.

“Hearing someone tell me, ‘but for you I’d be dead’ and knowing that we have totally changed the trajectory of not just one life, but probably that person’s children,” Judge Blackburn said. “We have enabled mothers to get custody of their children back. Fathers that are totally written off by their family, all of a sudden, they are part of the family again. Just putting people back together again and being able to do that on such a scale that no other program can. That’s what we can do.”

Watching Veterans work their way through the program week in and week out brings a tremendous amount of satisfaction to the court staff.

“When they finally do open up and they get the assistance to help them, you can just see how there’s a big sigh of relief and they express that when they graduate,” said Feliciano. “They get very emotional about how hard things were for them, and how no one ever thought about them, worried about them, and wanted to make sure they succeed. Those are the types of things that motivate us to continue on. To hear those graduation essays or speeches and that fulfills what I do.”

According to a 2018 study by the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), 8 percent of those serving time in state and federal prisons or local jails are Veterans.

“I 100 percent believe that this is the way of criminal justice reform in the future,” Judge Kenneth Goble, Jr., Montgomery County General Sessions and Veterans Treatment Court. “If we are going to turn lives around, we are not going to do it through the court system. That’s a deterrent. Unless or until we provide treatment for these folks who are breaking our laws because of drug dependency, it is just going to be a revolving door and this is one major way to stop the revolving door.”

The NCBI study also found that Veterans Treatment Courts are the fastest growing specialty court in the United States, with more than 460 currently in operation nationwide. Not only do most graduates become productive members of society, the cost savings of not having them in jail is significant.

“Veterans have so much to offer,” Judge Taylor said. “They’ve had all of this training in the military that makes them resourceful and makes them hardworking and gives them skills. So, putting that person to work in the community is a plus for everybody. Almost all of them, if they’re successful in Veterans Treatment Court, they want to give back to the community in some way. Our churches, our civic organizations, they all benefit from these people because they are all hardworking, smart, and skilled and they can do things. And they can’t do those things while they’re in jail.”