Smart justice for vets

11/28/2012

Specialty courts, whether they deal with the problems of the mentally ill or addicted, have shown extraordinary success around the country, diverting people from prison and jail into less-costly community treatment and supervision. They offer people who commit mostly lower-level, nonviolent offenses a chance to get the help they need, while sparing society the enormous human and economic costs of incarceration.

In Lucas County, a group of Veterans Administration officials, local judges, military leaders, and others are working to start a veterans’ court in Toledo. Details need to be worked out before local judges consider a final plan, including how to manage the court docket, train probation officers, and line up services for eligible veterans, but this is an initiative the entire community should get behind now.

Local advocates, including Justice Evelyn Lundberg Stratton of the Ohio Supreme Court and retired Lt. Col. Bob Decker, don’t need to start from scratch. Lucas County runs a Family and Drug Court that links drug-addicted parents to services that can preserve families and keep them out of jail. And special courts for veterans already operate in Youngstown, Cleveland, Mansfield, and Akron, as well as in East Lansing and Novi, Michigan.

In Novi’s 52nd District Court, Judge Brian MacKenzie and his veterans’ treatment court give vets a chance to get sober and heal emotional scars, as Blade staff writer Rod Lockwood reported recently.

The program is no free ride. It requires the hard, grueling work of personal change. But the court does recognize the service of veterans to their country, acknowledges that some carry serious psychological and physical problems, including post-trumatic stress syndrome and alcoholism, and connects them to a range of services they might not have known about.

Participants are placed on probation. The court requires them to get counseling through the Veterans Administration, address addiction problems, get tested regularly for drugs and alcohol, and stay out of trouble.

Typically, veterans’ court takes those with low-level felonies or misdemeanors, such as driving under the influence, drug possession, or assault. Once a participant completes the program, which takes about a year, charges are dropped.

In Novi, since the program started in 2010, 70 people have graduated from veterans’ treatment court, while only three have failed.

Reorganizing court dockets costs little or nothing, but savings can be huge. Every person who is diverted from prison or jail saves taxpayers about $30,000 a year. Veterans now make up about 10 percent of the U.S. prison and jail population.

Respect for military veterans is higher than at any time since World War II. Toledo has already shown it’s willing to honor that service with action as well as words. Veterans Matter, an initiative to house homeless veterans eligible for a special program run by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the VA, provides vouchers to rent private housing. Meantime, the VA offers supportive services that help those formerly homeless veterans get back on their feet.

In providing housing or dispensing justice, one size doesn’t fit all. Through an innovative housing program and an emerging speciality court, Toledo is honoring veterans by helping those who need it.