Rock County veterans denied court program
Rock County started Wisconsin's first Veterans Treatment Court in September 2009, hoping to better treat the needs of servicemen and women who ended up on the wrong side of the law.
A few years after it started, however, veterans who would be eligible for the program are not being allowed into it.
That's because Rock County District Attorney David O'Leary has directed his office to not accept any new referrals into the Veterans Treatment Court this year, citing its cost to the county and a report that found the program falling short of national standards.
O'Leary's office hasn't referred a case to the program in nearly six months, and since then a number of veterans—prosecutors can't say for sure how many—have been turned down from Veterans Treatment Court.
Jeremiah McCarty, an Iraq War veteran charged with third-offense drunken driving, believes he is one of them.
"We're getting the shaft for somebody else's mess-up," McCarty said. "The only local guys getting the short end of the stick are the Rock County veterans."
'Best treatment for the individual'
Veterans Treatment Court was founded to serve the treatment needs of veteran offenders.
Participants must have served in the armed forces, be eligible for veterans' benefits and have a "demonstrated treatment need," according to a report on the program issued in January from UW-Whitewater professor Paul Gregory and student Katie Behl.
Those needs often include problems with post-traumatic stress disorder, addiction to drugs or alcohol, traumatic brain injuries, anger management or "other mental health issues," according to the report.
Cases are handled in Rock County Court but come from around the area, including Dane, Walworth and Green counties.
Defendants who enter the program receive treatment at federally funded Department of Veterans Affairs facilities, reducing the cost to the county, advocates of the program point out.
They also attend Veterans Treatment Court sessions every third Thursday, submit to drug tests and meet with other veterans, who act as mentors or sponsors.
Defendants who complete their treatments often graduate after nine to 12 months and can then see their charges reduced or dismissed, according to Gregory's report.
Thirty offenders have participated in the program since 2009, according to data from the district attorney's office. Eleven of those are still in the program today.
Rock County Judge James Daley, who directs the program, said it is designed to specifically address the needs of veterans.
"It is the best treatment for the individual, which will deal with the core issues that led to them being put in the criminal justice system," Daley said.
Before any of this can happen, however, defendants must be allowed into the program by prosecutors—who can veto any potential participants, according to the report.
That's what Rock County prosecutors have been advised to do, and why local veterans have not been able to join the program.
Report finds shortcomings
The January report from Gregory compared the Veterans Treatment Court to 10 standards for drug treatment courts, and found Rock County's program met only two of them fully.
A major area of concern for O'Leary is the program's drug and alcohol testing policy.
While random tests are supposed to happen once or twice per week, in reality "drug testing is extremely minimal and not random," according to the report.
The tests are conducted at Department of Veterans Affairs facilities, which O'Leary said do not monitor subjects during urine tests.
That makes it easy for someone who hasn't stayed sober during the program to beat a test, he said.
"A treatment court that doesn't monitor treatment is not worth putting resources in," O'Leary said. "When I found that out … I said, 'Look, until we get some of these issues straightened out, I'm not referring more people into the program.'"
O'Leary's office last recommended a case to the Veterans Treatment Court in November.
Asked last week about O'Leary's decision, Daley said he was not aware of it.
"He's an elected official. He makes the political decision which is best for him," Daley said. "The other district attorneys in the surrounding counties still refer their cases."
Although he identified areas of concern that officials should address, Gregory said his investigation was not meant as a report card saying Rock County's program has failed.
He declined to comment on O'Leary's decision to stop referring cases into the program.
Cost falling on Rock County office
Another issue motivating O'Leary's decision is the burden of managing Veterans Treatment Court cases that fall on his office.
It's true that the VA picks up the cost of treatment, he said, but it's still his office that represents the state in court—often for cases coming from outside Rock County.
Of the 30 participants who have taken part, 11 come from Rock County and just as many are from Dane, according to data provided by the district attorney's office. Eight more cases are from other nearby counties.
Managing those cases eats up time and resources in his office, O'Leary said.
"I'm doing a nice favor for the four neighboring counties because I'm trying to help veterans, which is great," he said, "but there is a breaking point."
Daley criticized this point, saying the district attorneys' offices where cases originate do much of the preparation work.
Rock County Assistant District Attorney Jerry Urbik represents the state in veterans' court and said the commitment includes a meeting before the session and the court itself. If a participant commits a violation between sessions, Urbik said he has to monitor those as well.
It varies, but Urbik conservatively estimated he spends 10 hours each month working on the program.
Veterans caught in the middle
McCarty, the war veteran charged with drunken driving, was arrested for his third OWI last June, a little more than two years after he returned from 11 months in Iraq.
His lawyer, Assistant Public Defender Don Weeden, has tried multiple times to get him into Veterans Treatment Court, but has been denied each time, McCarty said.
Urbik couldn't give a concrete number for how many veterans have been denied access to the program, but said he has personally turned cases down "at least once or twice." Other assistant district attorneys have as well, Urbik said.
O'Leary said he wants to firm up the program's procedures and see neighboring counties help cover the cost of managing it.
Until that happens, however, Rock County veterans such as McCarty will go through the system without access to the program their court set up back in 2009.
He is due in court for a plea hearing May 23.
McCarty knows he should be punished for what he did—he said his blood alcohol concentration was more than four times the legal limit to drive when he was arrested.
Still, he said he would rather get treatment from a veterans-focused program, rather than one aimed at the general population. Denying veterans access to the Rock County program isn't an effective way to address their problems, he said.
"They need to address those issues so the veterans can get the treatment they need in the program that was set up specifically for them," McCarty said. "They don't need to be throwing out their local veterans … just because they have a problem with their program."
Other veterans also are unhappy about O'Leary's decision to close access to the program, Daley said.
"There are some frustrations that have been conveyed to me from veterans, who may or may not be permitted to the court because of where they live," Daley said. "But that's the decision Mr. O'Leary has made."
Last updated: 10:38 am Tuesday, July 2, 2013