First Veterans Court participants set to graduate
After more than a year in action, the South Central Indiana Veterans Treatment Court of Harrison County will soon celebrate its first members’ graduation from the program.
The court is one of 100 certified problem-solving courts in Indiana that offers programs for specific types of offenders, like drug abusers, recidivists or veterans, to lessen their charges or penalties. It officially became a certified problem-solving court on Jan. 29 last year.
Superior Court Judge Joseph (Joe) E. Claypool said people in the military often struggle with mental health disorders after their service, and this can contribute to veterans landing in jail.
‘We do what we possibly can so that they get the treatment they need and to not saddle them with a criminal record,’ he said.
Jeff Skaggs, an adult probation officer who works with the veterans court, said the program is different from probation in the sense that it’s very intensive and participants have to meet with veterans court officers several times a week in addition to maintaining sobriety requirements.
Seven people are in various stages of the treatment program right now, and the court has identified others who may soon be able to join the program.
The process starts when someone is arrested and booked into jail. Claypool said Harrison County Sheriff Nick Smith works with the court to identify offenders who are potentially eligible for the program.
To qualify for the veterans court treatment program, an offender must have served in the U.S. military and be facing legal charges in one of the counties that partners with the court (Harrison, Washington, Crawford, Orange, Perry or Jackson counties).
Program coordinator Jessica Houchin said the charges can be level five or level six felonies or misdemeanors, and participants must have some sort of treatment issue, like mental health or addiction.
Disqualifying factors include prior convictions or current charges for a forcible felony or a sexual offense or severe psychological problems. Veterans may also be denied on the basis that a participant is unable to take part in treatment activities (within guidelines of the Americans with Disabilities Act) or in the case that the veteran has been terminated from any other problem-solving court, unless approved by the team.
The court’s guidelines say an applicant may meet all eligibility requirements but still not be suitable for the program. The final determination of an applicant’s eligibility rests with the presiding judge.
‘Once I have met with the participants and determined if they could be eligible for the program and their willingness to participate in treatment, I then reach out to their attorney to advise them about their possible eligibility for the program,’ Houchin said.
If the team OK’s an applicant, the offender’s attorney can work out a plea agreement with the prosecutor. Once all parties agree, the veteran is then officially transferred to the supervision of the Veterans Treatment Court.
This program doesn’t have classrooms and chalkboards. Veterans get to live freely outside of jail with a team of 10 veterans court treatment and mental health specialists available to use as a resource and support system.
‘We tried to set it up to meet their needs for treatment,’ Claypool said.
Each participant has a mentor on their veterans court support team who is typically a veteran volunteer. The mentor makes himself or herself available for a participant to call and talk to about daily challenges and/or accomplishments.
Veterans can move through the program’s three phases at their own pace. Completing all three takes a minimum of one year.
The first phase focuses on orientation and stabilization. Claypool said in this stage participants spend a minimum of three months learning about the program and how to better contribute to society in the future.
The next step, dubbed the ‘living with integrity’ phase, is about walking the walk and living a sober, crime-free life. In this stage, veterans spend a minimum of four months practicing responsible living in the real world.
‘You’re really starting to see some progress in that phase,’ Skaggs said.
In the third and final step, participants prepare to live a sober and crime-free life without the court’s help. This phase, which takes a minimum of five months, is called ‘Relapse prevention: Accomplishment and triumph,’ and, to complete it, the veterans need to hold down a job, participate in some kind of community activity and provide restitution for their crimes in some way. These requirements are determined and evaluated by the veterans court officers.
Skaggs said during the last step participants should be mastering their relapse prevention plans.
‘You should see how they buy into the program and treatment for themselves in this phase,’ Claypool added.
Throughout each of the phases, participants must attend weekly meetings and take drug tests to deter them from falling into old ways.
Claypool said someone getting arrested again or failing a drug test doesn’t necessarily disqualify them from the program, but instances like that will necessitate an evaluation and a decision by the veterans court officers.
‘We try to exhaust all of our options before removing them from the program,’ he said.
Houchin said the main goal for the program is to help as many veterans in the legal system as possible get the treatment they need and deserve to get their lives back on track.
‘These men and women have served our country, and many suffer from physical and emotional wounds that they may not have ever received treatment for in the past,’ she said. ‘This is our chance to help them get that treatment and restore their honor and regain their life back.’
The South Central Indiana Veterans Treatment Court is a dual-county initiative between Harrison and Washington counties.
To express interest in becoming a veterans mentor volunteer, contact Houchin at 812-738-1262 (Harrison County) or 1-812-883-3318 (Washington County) or by email at [email protected]