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Rock County Veterans Treatment Court first in the state

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Ted Sullivan
September 20, 2009
— Rock County is starting the first court program in Wisconsin to help veterans who break the law after returning from war and suffer from alcohol or drug abuse, mental-health problems or post-traumatic stress disorder.

Veterans Treatment Court kicked off last week in Rock County Court. Rock County will test the court, but Milwaukee, Eau Claire and La Crosse counties also want to start the program, said Judge James Daley, a Vietnam veteran who will preside over the court.


The program could become critical next year when 3,900 Wisconsin National Guard members return from Iraq, Daley said.


The court will focus on treating veterans charged with crimes. Veterans will plead guilty to the charges up front, but the charges could be reduced or dismissed if they successfully treat their mental-health issues, Daley said.


The court will meet every two weeks.


The hope is that early treatment will prevent veterans from becoming repeat offenders.


“For many of these folks, they think this is the way life is,” Daley said. “They don’t realize they have issues that need to be dealt with.”


Volunteer mentors, who also are veterans, will help offenders through the program.


Veterans will be paired with mentors with similar military backgrounds, said Rory McGarry, an Iraq war veteran who will coordinate mentors.


“We can be a role model. We can be a facilitator of benefits. We can answer questions or we can just be there to talk,” McGarry said. “We’re just another veteran, who probably has had some similar experiences.”


The program has nine mentors, McGarry said, and more are needed.


Treatment helps

Veterans returning from war often have difficult transitions, Daley said. They can develop problems in their personal relationships or jobs.


They often self medicate with alcohol or drugs, Daley said, and their addictions can get them in trouble.


Post-traumatic stress disorder and brain injuries also lead to problems, he said.


In one case, an Iraq war veteran got into a fight at a local bar after a man made a comment about a girl, Daley said. The veteran punched the guy, seriously injuring him.


The veteran was charged with substantial battery, but he received treatment from Veterans Affairs and has turned his life around, Daley said.


“He’s had not a brush with the law since 2005,” Daley said.


Without treatment, Daley said, the veteran might have re-offended.


Modeled after other courts

Veterans Treatment Court stems from the same principles as Drug Court. It will be a diversion court under an agreement between prosecutors and defense attorneys. The district attorney’s office will approve who is admitted to the program.


Although Drug Court can treat addiction issues, only the VA has the resources to treat veterans with brain injuries or post-traumatic stress disorder, Daley said.


“Our present Drug Court, which does a wonderful job, can’t take people with mental-health issues,” he said.


Veterans admitted to the court must be screened and qualified. They also must be evaluated to determine their drug, alcohol or mental-health needs.


Attorneys on both sides will have to agree on the conditions veterans must meet to finish the program.


The VA pays for treatment veterans receive.


Reducing recidivism

Justice system officials have been meeting regularly for months to plan out the details of the court.


A meeting was recently held with private defense attorneys to explain the program. Defense attorneys will be responsible for referring veterans.


The only other Veterans Treatment Court is in Buffalo, N.Y. Rock County and state officials traveled to Buffalo in January to observe the court.


Veterans who finished the Buffalo program had nearly no recidivism, Eric Nelson, first assistant state public defender, told the attorneys.


Veterans had discipline and followed orders at previous times in their lives, Nelson said, and the court hopes to tap into that ability.


Veterans also are motivated to perform for the judge and their mentor, he said.


The program will likely grow, Daley said, and veterans from nearby counties could enter the program.



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