Still no veterans in Rock County court program

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Nico Savidge
Sunday, December 1, 2013

JANESVILLE—The last time a Rock County veteran entered a local program for servicemen and servicewomen who run into trouble with the law was Nov. 15, 2012.

Since that last resident started Veterans Court, a UW-Whitewater professor who analyzed the program found it failing to meet many standards for drug treatment courts.

Citing that report and what he saw as insufficient drug testing, Rock County District Attorney David O'Leary stopped referring local cases to the program.

County officials, veterans' advocates, defense attorneys, the judge who oversees the program and O'Leary have met to discuss ways to improve the court and get cases entered back into it.

More than a year after that last defendant started Veterans Court, however, the district attorney's office is still refusing to send cases to it—though officials say they are working on a solution.

Mason Braunschweig, an assistant Rock County District Attorney who prosecutes cases in the court, says the office is hoping to start referring cases again in January.

“We're hopeful that we'll have a model in place by the end of the year,” Braunschweig said.

There are now seven participants in the program, which is meant to divert veterans from the normal criminal justice system and get them help for issues like traumatic brain injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Participants receive treatment at Department of Veterans Affairs facilities. If they complete the program, they can see charges reduced or dismissed.

The program pulls from around the region, and only two of the existing participants are from Rock County.

Edward Zapala, a case manager at the VA, said the idea is to get veterans help that could be more effective than jail or prison.

“We can provide some treatment that may be at the root of some of the behavior that is getting the veteran involved in the criminal justice system,” Zapala said. “Hopefully when we treat some of that we prevent some future involvement with the law.”

Judge James Daley, who presides over Veterans Court and was critical of the decision to stop referrals earlier this year, said he has seen cases that would have been a good fit for the court, but couldn't get in.

Participants in Veterans Court must have served in the armed forces, be eligible for veterans' benefits and have some sort of treatment need—anger issues, for instance, or drug abuse.

To get into the program, though, the district attorney's office also must refer the veteran's case.

A January report from UW-Whitewater professor Paul Gregory found the program had lax drug testing requirements, however. That's when O'Leary said he could no longer keep referring cases into Veterans Court.

The program needs a way to make sure people aren't drinking or using drugs, Braunschweig said, and to that end authorities are working to get more stringent drug testing.

Changes include monitored tests at the VA and random drug testing administered by the sheriff's office, he said.

“If you're just doing the treatment but you're not doing the testing, it could be a lot of lip service,” Braunschweig said. “The whole point of this is that we want individuals who go through this program to get the help that they need.”

The district attorney's office also is working on a system that will reduce the number of out-of-county cases that come into the program. Although treatment happens at VA facilities, the burden of managing cases still rests with Rock County prosecutors, which O'Leary has said is unreasonable.

Daley criticized some changes made to the program, saying they are better suited for drug-specific courts than for a veterans court that deals with more complicated issues.

But, he said, that's what was necessary to get local veterans back in the program.

“The gatekeeper to the program is the district attorney's office,” Daley said. “Unless he is satisfied, we won't get cases into the court.”

Over the next few weeks, Braunschweig said, prosecutors hope to “communicate the game plan” with others involved in Veterans Court and get their ideas for how to improve it.

If all goes well, 2014 could mark the return of cases to the program.

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