Veterans Court stalls for lack of candidates

Key leaders in Augusta’s judicial system have been working behind the scenes for months to establish a veteran’s accountability court.

But now that they’ve established it, the veterans won’t come.

It’s a troubling situation for Superior Court Judge James Blanchard, who was counting on the same amount of success he’s had converting drug addicts into productive citizens. Participants in drug court submit to an intense two-year probation period that includes counseling and curfew checks to kick their habits and rebuild their lives. A veterans court would function in a similar manner by holding veterans to high standards on probation and giving them counseling in exchange for dropping a criminal charge upon successfully completing the program.

That “one size fits all” approach isn’t working with veterans, however, and coordinators are also running into a lack of qualified veterans.

“We stand ready, willing and able,” Blanchard said, but there are no veterans willing to participate in the voluntary program and it’s “gut wrenching.”

The reasons vary. In drug court, participants have different backgrounds, but they’re all dealing with a common drug addiction. Their behavioral issues and struggles have been classified and studied for years.

With veterans, “there’s not the same level of commonality,” said District Attorney Ashley Wright. “Each one has a different issue that needs attention.”

Some veterans enter the service with emotional baggage and issues that are exacerbated by traumatic experiences in war. They pick up those same bad habits upon discharge and end up in the court system. Other well-adjusted veterans turn to substance abuse because of post-traumatic stress disorder and crime is the result.

“It’s like finding out which came first, the chicken or the egg,” said Susan Schuster, a clinical social worker and the veterans justice outreach specialist with Augusta’s Department of Veterans Affairs hospitals.

Wright said most of the crimes are misdemeanors such as domestic violence or theft charges that only carry a maximum 12-month jail sentence. While it’s great that violent crime is low, there’s hardly an incentive to enter a two-year program, Wright said.

While a structured veterans court is still forthcoming, the drug court team continues to handle veteran cases on an ad hoc basis. Defense attorneys are reaching out to Blanchard, Wright and the VA for help as veterans commit new crimes.

“That’s a relationship we’ve tried to build on,” Wright said.

Walter Meetze is an attorney working with the VA to represent some of the veterans needing legal help. The former Marine said many of his clients have mental issues or don’t have the capability to recognize bad situations. He gives the example of a Vietnam veteran who was prosecuted because he allowed someone to use his ID to pass a bad check.

“It’s not going to help someone with a mental problem to lock them up,” Meetze said.

Meetze said veterans deserve special treatment because they risked their lives and sacrificed time with family to defend America.

“That’s why you give veterans the time of day and the benefit of the doubt,” Meetze said. “They’ve earned it.”

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