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Court offers new options for veterans
Legal model seeks to rehabilitate violators facing post-combat issues
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Hall County Board of Commissioners Chairman Richard Mecum has a perspective on crime and law enforcement formed by his role as former sheriff.

“A lot of people used to ask me ‘why are people in jail?’ And they thought I would respond, ‘drugs,’ or something, but what I would say is it really comes down to an inability to control your own emotions,” he said. “With the veterans, they’re coming out of a violent-type situation, and often times they may make an error: Should you have to hold that against them for the rest of their life? Well, no.”

“Many of these citizens were good people and something happened to trigger (them) and you’re dealing with a psychological problem.”

Debbie Mott, head of treatment services overseeing Hall County’s Accountability Courts, said the county’s Veterans Court began in January, and has eight veterans enrolled. Program directors are seeking funds from the state Criminal Justice Coordinating Council to continue for the 2015 fiscal year.

The court seeks to empower veterans with the skills and mindsets to emerge from the criminal justice system better off than they were.

“The problem you generally have is once the person is released from prison, where do they go?” Mecum said. “A lot of the times people pick up the same bad habits and run with them again.”

Senior Public Defender Larry Duttweiler said the Veterans Court is part of a growing recognition of the unique challenges, backed by science and research, that veterans confront post-combat.

“Whereas some feel that this provides some sort of preferential treatment to veterans, we are just now beginning to not only recognize the numbers of veterans who are being charged with violent crimes but, similarly, beginning to understand the origins of these type of behaviors towards others and themselves,” Duttweiler said.

Duttweiler said veterans issues are complicated by the fact that many reject outside help for their problems and try to manage them on their own.

“This only compounds a problem that begins with teaching that some sort of physical force is what resolves a conflict,” he said. “The success of such a program depends upon a constellation of stakeholders, especially mentors who have been through and understand the process.”

In addition to the mentors and a public defender representative, other Veterans Court staff include mental health and substance abuse counselors, a program coordinator, probation officer, Veterans Affairs liaison and Sheriff’s Office representative.

The program’s existence also hinges on the cooperation of the District Attorney’s Office. Prosecutor Clark Candler represents the office in all Accountability Courts.

Candler said the team of stakeholders meet weekly before court to discuss the status of participants for that week, including any violations requiring some sort of sanction from the court, and to go over new referrals.

“With new referrals, I have to approve their criminal history,” Candler said. “Someone with a history of violent, sex-related charges or otherwise very serious charges will not be approved.”

Charges are often related to substance or alcohol abuse, such as possession of a controlled substance. Candler said other common charges, like terroristic threats or battery, shed light on possible anger management issues.

“Beyond this legal screening, they are also clinically evaluated by our treatment staff, who assess them to see if they have what is called SPMI, severe and persistent mental illness,” he said.

A diagnosed mental illness alone doesn’t guarantee a veteran being allowed in the program.

“If they pass the legal and clinical screening, we make sure there is a strong nexus between the SPMI and the criminal charge they are now facing,” Candler said.

A drug charge might stem from a violator trying to self-medicate an underlying disorder, or a conduct charge indicative of aggression caused by mental illness. But a theft charge — even if seen a way to support a habit, for example — might veer too far.

“In other words, a diagnosis of PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) may have a strong nexus with them picking up a disorder conduct, but might be unrelated to them shoplifting some earrings,” Candler said.

Initial referrals to veterans court can originate from the jail, defense attorneys, prosecutors, probation officers, relatives of defendants, the defendant themselves or even sympathetic victims who suspect the crime was triggered by mental illness, although Candler noted there is a special consideration where victims are involved.

“In any case where there was a victim of any kind, I contact the victim to tell them about the program and to see how they feel about allowing the defendant to enroll, instead of proceeding directly into the ordinary criminal justice track,” he said.

Participants sign an enrollment contract that establishes the program’s rules. Outcomes from successful completion are determined on a “case-by-case basis,” Candler said, but can range from avoiding time in custody, a lesser charge, or as in Drug Court, outright dismissal upon graduation.

Veterans court divisions may be a more frequent staple of the criminal justice system. Georgia lawmakers addressed the courts this session, and legislation that codified statewide support passed both the Georgia House and Senate and awaits a signature from Gov. Nathan Deal.

The law also includes a provision that would allow veterans courts to restore driving privileges to defendants with revoked licenses as part of efforts to help maintain employment and lower recidivism.