NOVI, Mich. — Ian Sullivan has a dry, self-deprecating sense of humor he delivers with a wry grin that belies the serious nature of his life experiences.
He spent four prime years of his life serving his country from 1996 to 2000 and came back to the Novi, Mich., area no better off than when he joined the Army. He tacked two more driving under the influence charges onto the pair he had before he joined the service, he got divorced, and his life was a mess.
There was a possession of marijuana charge in 2010 that was going to lead to six months in jail and two years of probation. This on top of the 40 days he’d spent locked up for the previous DUIs.
“I was a little hard-headed,” he said quietly in a reception room at the 52nd District Court in Novi.
Then he found Judge Brian MacKenzie and his veterans treatment court and suddenly he had a choice that transcended prison. He could do the grueling work to make himself better. Get sober. Come to terms with his emotions. Stay straight.
The trade-off was participating in a unique court program — one that is being seriously considered for Lucas County — that recognizes veterans’ service, acknowledges that some of them come home with serious psychological and physical problems ranging from post-traumatic stress disorder to alcoholism, and links them with an array of services they may not otherwise know exist.
A month after agreeing to go into the program to avoid a jail sentence for the marijuana charge, Mr. Sullivan had an epiphany.
“About 30 days into veterans court it became clear to me that I needed to be sober, and every tool I needed was being handed to me.”
Link to services
Veterans courts are in Youngstown, Cleveland, Mansfield, Akron, East Lansing, Mich., and other cities across the country, and they closely resemble the Family and Drug Court in Lucas County. Just as that “specialty” court tries to link drug-addicted parents to services that can preserve their families and keep them out of jail, the veterans court does the same for former members of the armed services.
Military veterans charged with lower-level felonies or misdemeanors such as driving under the influence of alcohol, drug possession, or assault who qualify for the program are taken out of a municipal or common pleas court and put into the veterans court. Once a participant successfully completes the program, which takes about a year, the charges are dropped.
The vast majority of veterans who leave the service never come into contact with law enforcement. According to the 2007 Census, nearly 23 million veterans live in the United States, and only 3 percent of them ever became involved in the criminal justice system.
Ralph Wineland, readjustment counseling therapist at the Toledo Vet Center, said many of the veterans who do have problems, though, can end up in trouble with the law, and they need help. An estimated 10 percent of the U.S. prison and jail population is made up of veterans, according to the U.S. Department of Justice, and the goal of veterans courts is to reduce that number.
“It’s an intervention where — before you sentence this person and give him a record ... you give this person one more try to get readjusted,” he said.
Justice Evelyn Lundberg Stratton of the Ohio Supreme Court is a vocal proponent for the courts, providing literature on their effectiveness, speaking at conferences, and promoting the concept any time she has the opportunity. “You really make a difference in the lives of these vets,” she said.
In Novi, Holly Most waited in the reception area for her appearance before Judge Brian MacKenzie. A member of the 83rd Air Control Squadron from 1994 to 1997, she received a medical discharge from the military, suffering with obsessive compulsive disorder and anxiety.
She started drinking heavily over the years, was charged with domestic violence, and then violated her probation when she was charged with driving under the influence of alcohol. During a court appearance on that charge several months ago, Judge MacKenzie mentioned to the mother of two daughters the availability of the veterans court option.
“Of course, at the time I swore I didn’t have a problem and shoved the paperwork aside,” the Novi resident said.
But her parents suggested she needed serious help, so she opted for the alternative. She was intimidated by the hard work. Participants are placed on probation and then are required to get counseling through the Veterans Administration, address any addiction problems they have (participants are tested for drugs and alcohol sometimes twice a day), go to 12-step programs, and stay out of trouble or risk going to jail or getting kicked out of the program.
“It’s intense and it’s no joke. It’s like being back in the military,” Ms. Most said. “I had been out so long I didn’t know if I wanted to be around military people. It’s intimidating.”
Retired Lt. Col. Bob Decker has been instrumental in trying to bring a veterans court to Toledo and the effort has gained serious momentum. He spent 25 years with the 180th Air National Guard as a fighter squadron commander flying F-16s and wanted to help his fellow vets.
He began meeting with doctors and people in the criminal justice system, learning that many want to assist veterans but don’t know how. And simple protocols such as having arresting officers, jail personnel, or even judges ask a defendant if he or she has served in the military were not occurring.
“It’s trying to reduce the punitive side and get them into an intervention program where they can get this individual into the right avenue with the Veterans Administration. There are tons of people that care, it’s just so many people don’t really know there’s a problem out there.”
Melody Powers, veterans justice outreach coordinator with the Veterans Administration in Ann Arbor, said the VA is eager to work with Toledo in setting up a court.
A group composed of Veterans Administration officials, local judges, military leaders, and others has been meeting semiregularly for months to discuss bringing a veterans court to Toledo.
A number of logistical issues need to be worked out, such as how the court’s docket would be managed, making sure probation officers are trained in handling the defendants who are coming through the program, lining up services for the veterans, and determining if more money will be needed.
Veterans courts do not require approval at the state level. They can be established by the local courts.
Judge William Connelly of Toledo Municipal Court is an enthusiastic supporter of the effort, but he cautioned that more work needs to be done. For example, no one knows exactly how many defendants to expect in the program. Ohio has about 900,000 military veterans, the sixth most in the country, but how many could end up being charged locally?
He also noted that he is one of seven Toledo Municipal Court judges, and he owes a responsibility to his colleagues to provide them with more information. In the next 45 days he hopes to form an advisory committee that will ensure the various statutory requirements are followed in setting up the court.
A draft agreement on its structure should be complete within about four months, and within six months he hopes to have a recommendation to take to the other judges.
On the Common Pleas court side locally, Judges Dean Mandros and Gene Zmuda have expressed an interest in the courts. Judge Mandros has attended some of the planning meetings on the issue, and he said he will report back to his fellow judges.
Before nearly 20 people appeared before him in court on a recent Monday, Judge MacKenzie was in his chambers with probation officers, court staff, a defense attorney, and a representative of the VA to discuss each of the cases on that day’s docket.
They know who has been following their programs diligently and who has slipped up. They know who has a new girlfriend, who needs a ride to court, and whether someone is struggling with PTSD or other mental problems.
The judge has an envelope full of gift cards for things such as gas, food, and movie tickets that he gives each of the clients who are successful in meeting their goals. The court, which meets every two or three weeks, doesn’t pay for the items. The money for them is from a nonprofit fund-raising effort.
Judge MacKenzie said it’s important to give positive rewards for people battling addiction and sticking to the program. “When you’re a judge you tend to see people at their worst. In this program, I see people getting better. There’s a value to seeing that what I do matters and that I’m not just turning the wheel.”
He dismissed the notion that it could be a burden on the court, noting that since the court started in 2010 there have been 70 people who have “graduated” from the program and only three who failed. He also said it can be done without spending more taxpayers’ money, by simply reorganizing judges’ dockets.
Mr. Sullivan is now a mentor in the program, and he made his way around the reception room before court started, chatting quietly with people.
He is a testament to the power of healing, but noted that everyone comes to sobriety in their own time and that when he was 26 he never would have tried to get help. At 36, it’s different.
“It feels great knowing you can get through life without having to run to a bottle every day,” he said. “I look at it like every time I drank, I set myself up for failure.”
Ms. Most said she is an enthusiastic participant in the program because she has been made aware of VA benefits she never knew were available. She has spoken at a conference for female veterans and is considering joining a smoking-cessation class.
“I did a total 180 in my life. I can’t even believe the goals I’ve accomplished,” she said. “I’ve been sober for eight months — the longest I’ve been in my adult life.”
Contact Rod Lockwood at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6159.