Special courts aim to keep military veterans off streets, out of jail

This photo provided by the 5th Circuit Solicitor's Office shows Clarence Johnson speaking at his Sept. 12, 2012, graduation from veterans court. Johnson was among the first 18 people to finish the program, the only of its kind in South Carolina, which offers veterans facing nonviolent drug offenses a chance to stay out of jail as long as they comply with court-ordered attendance at rehab and meetings. (AP Photo/5th Circuit Solicitor's Office)

COLUMBIA — When a knee injury left him on disability and reliant on pain med­i­cation, Army veteran Clar­ence Johnson hit a wall. Out of his prescription drugs, the New York City native was arrested during a visit to South Carolina last year after buying narcotics on the street.


He was facing up to two years in jail. But under a new program for veterans facing some nonviolent crimes, John­son was able to stay out of jail – and get off drugs, he hopes, for good.

Because of his military service, Johnson, 55, was eligible for a veterans treatment court. They are set up like drug courts, which offer people facing nonviolent drug offenses a chance to stay out of jail as long as they comply with court-ordered attendance at rehab and meetings.

The courts give veterans ways to get and stay connected with resources available through the Veterans Admin­is­tration, such as addiction treatment and counseling.

Through weekly meetings with attorneys, counselors and a veteran mentor, participants get the encouragement that hopefully will
help them stay clean and keep from breaking the law again.

“This time, it seemed like my chance to really clean my act up,” said Johnson, who was among 18 men who were the first graduates of Rich­land County’s veterans court, the first in South Carolina. “It changed my life.”

Veterans courts have been spreading since the first one was set up in Buffalo, N.Y., in 2008, with nearly 100 courts in 27 states and at least 100 more planned, according to Chris Deutsch of Justice for Vets, a group that advocates for the programs.

Getting someone set up in the program can be as simple as asking whether they’ve served, Deutsch said. Only veterans with a clinical diagnosis of a substance abuse or a mental health
disorder are eligible – and that disorder doesn’t even have to be directly linked to a service-related injury or trauma.

“The goal of the court is still to get them connected to treatment,” Deutsch said. “Nobody is served by cycling that person through.”

Because there are already drug and mental health counseling resources available to veterans through the VA, it doesn’t cost much to set up the courts. Deutsch said the only problem comes because many veterans may think they’re ineligible.

Richland County prosecutor Dan Johnson, a National Guard judge advocate general and Iraq veteran, said taking care of veterans doesn’t stop once they leave military service.

“Part of the warrior ethos is that you never leave a fallen comrade behind,” he
said. “And I think that’s a continuing duty that we all have.”

For Clarence Johnson, rediscovering that soldier mentality is what got him through veterans court.

“If you’re a disciplined soldier, your format is to complete the mission,” he said. “People paid with their lives for us to live the way we do in America. There’s a price for everything. This freedom didn’t come easy.”