Veterans-only court is in works to provide treatment

Project aims to pinpoint causes of crime, provide treatment

In the past four years, about 1,300 veterans have been booked into the Columbia County jail.

Charges range from drunken driving to assault, as men and women who fought for their country overseas struggle to stay peaceful back home.

There are physical and mental issues to consider -- such as post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and substance abuse -- in addition to the bigger question of whether the community and nation are fulfilling their promises to veterans when so many end up in jail.

The Augusta Judicial Circuit, under the direction of Judge James G. Blanchard Jr. and the Charlie Norwood VA Medical Center, is working to tackle the problem by establishing one of the state's first courts tailored specifically to help veterans. The so-called veterans court will join one under way in Butts County, Ga.

"It's sort of like another shot at recovery," said Laurie Ott, of the CSRA Wounded Warrior Care Project. "Another shot at healing from whatever it is that brought them to this point where they've had this law enforcement encounter."

In 2009, Ott's organization brought local law enforcement and judges together for a roundtable discussion at the VA Hospital with Judge Robert Russell of Buffalo, N.Y. Russell was the first in the nation to establish a court specifically designed to give veterans help rather than jail time.

Ott said that laid the foundation for the work done in Augusta.

When it's completed, the veterans court will work in much the same way as the circuit's drug court. Blanchard said the plan is to have everyone who is booked into local jails fill out paperwork that inquires about military service. Afterward, the district attorney's office will follow with a full screening and background check of the inmate.

"The DA is gatekeeper," Blanchard said.

Anyone with violent offenses that demand mandatory incarceration will be excluded, said District Attorney Ashley Wright. Drug charges, thefts and other nonviolent offenses are likely to make up a large part of the applications.

"The person needs to be in need of treatment and not just to have committed a crime," Wright said.

Instead of staying in jail, eligible veterans can volunteer for court-administered treatment programs whose goal is to address the underlying causes of their arrests. Essentially, they will be reconnected to VA services and benefits. Although the Richmond County Sheriff's Office doesn't keep track of the number of veterans arrested, Blanchard estimates that it would likely be double the number in Columbia County because of the larger population and military presence.

Blanchard said he envisions the participants meeting at the VA hospital in a group setting. Treatment for substance abuse, PTSD and mentorship will be priorities for the program.

"What you will have are people who have been in that situation but pulled themselves out of it," Blanchard said.

Specialized veterans courts are popping up across the nation. Just this week, authorities in Charleston, S.C., announced the creation of their own, which was spearheaded by a 32-year-old Charleston School of Law student from Augusta.

In a phone interview, Justice L. Perkins said the court is good not only for the veterans but also for the community. Taxpayers benefit because, instead of the local municipality paying money to jail and treat the offender, the federal government bears the cost through the VA programs.

The community as a whole is better off, he said, because the offender is made a productive member of society.

"The idea here is that it balances the need between treating the veteran ... with the need to protect the community," he said.

Blanchard said a letter outlining the basic format of the court has been sent to the VA for approval. He hopes to have the court up and running within the next one to two months.

"We have met once a month with a wonderful team from the VA hospital," Blanchard said. "We've had social workers; we've had doctors meet with us; and we've had other individuals there. We meet on a monthly basis to discuss where we are and what we need to do."

View statistics from the U.S. Department of Justice's Bureau of Justice Statistics on incarcerated veterans at:

http://bjs.ojp.usdoj.gov/index.cfm?ty=pbdetail&iid=431

Listen to a National Public Radio interview with the founder of veterans courts, Judge Robert Russell at:

http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=91633166

HEAR: Listen to a National Public Radio interview with Judge Robert Russell, the founder of veterans courts, at npr.org">style="bold">npr.org .

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