Veterans get a second chance
by ELSIE HODNETT
St. Clair County begins the first Veterans Court in the area.
ST. CLAIR COUNTY – The St. Clair County Veterans Court began this month, offering participating veterans a second chance similar to the county’s successful drug courts.

“This court will operate similar to the Adult Drug Court, which has been in operation since 2008,” said St. Clair County Circuit Court Judge Phil Seay, who presides over the Adult Drug Court and the new Veterans Court.

Seay said as with the Drug Court participants, Veterans Court applicants will only be considered if he or she is charged with a nonviolent crime, most often a drug possession crime, and has the consent of the St. Clair County District Attorney’s Office.

“Once in the Veterans Court, the defendant will be required to undergo random drug screening on a regular basis and meet weekly for the Drug Court session each Thursday morning at 8 a.m.,” he said. “Other requirements include completing the drug counseling or any other counseling necessary, performing community service, paying all fines, restitution and court costs, as well as completing any mental health services found to be necessary in each particular case.”

Seay said any person who served in any branch of the U.S. military can be considered for the court.

“The Veterans Court is patterned after the Drug Court with three phases that take a minimum of one year to complete,” he said. “The main thing is to plug the veterans into Veterans Affairs benefits and give them a veteran mentor.”

Seay said a veteran peer will be assigned to each participant after an evaluation from a representative from the St. Clair County Military Assistance Personal Support program, or MAPS.

“We are offering personal support because of the willingness of all our judges, St. Clair County District Attorney Richard Minor and St. Clair County Commission Chairman Stan Batemon all working together to bring about this Veterans’ Treatment Court,” said Otto Fox, president of MAPS. “There is total community support from top to bottom.”

Fox said MAPS wants to offer a strong mentoring program, strictly peer-to-peer.

“All mentors must be veterans,” he said. “The challenge is to match up the right veteran mentor with the right Veterans Court participant.”

Fox said veterans are needed, both men and women, to serve as mentors. Any veteran interested in mentoring should contact Fox at 256-493-9191.

“The veterans have earned and deserve a second chance,” he said.

Seay said participants in the Veterans Court are required to maintain employment and pay for his or her participation with no cost to the taxpayers.

“Furthermore, sanctions will be handed out, in the form of community service or incarceration, for violations such as missed or failed drug screens, missed counseling or missed court appearances,” he said.

Seay said the participant will be required to plead guilty to the offense in order to be considered for admission to Veterans Court.

“Upon successful completion, after a minimum of one year participation, a first-time offender will have his or her case dismissed,” he said. “For those who are not first-time offenders, who would otherwise require a prison sentence without probation, after graduation from the program the participant will be placed on probation instead of sent to prison. If a participant fails to complete the Veterans’ Court by committing a new offense or is released from the program for any other good cause, the defendant will be ordered to prison immediately without the opportunity for probation, under his or her original plea of guilt.”

Seay said nationally drug courts have a 12-15 percent recidivism rate within three years of graduation, compared to those who are found guilty and do not participate in a drug court program who have up to 70 percent recidivism.

“After 72 graduates in the Adult Drug Court, we have yet to have a re-offender,” he said.

Seay said the new Veterans Court is one of a handful that have been initiated within the state.

“There is a heavy concentration of veterans in this area due to our proximity of Fort McClellan, the Anniston Army Depot, as well as the newly created Col. Robert L. Howard State Veterans Home,” he said. “Many of these veterans are unaware of the benefits they can receive through the VA including mental health counseling, medications they might need and other medical care, physical therapy, and more that can be available. The goal of this court is to plug those participants into this system and help these former military personnel, who bring unique issues and challenges to society when they re-enter the civilian world. The peer assigned to the participant will help the participant navigate the sometimes very complicated system of applying for the many VA benefits, for which many are unaware that they are eligible.”

Seay said the Veterans’ Court is managed through the St. Clair County Community Corrections under the director of Community Corrections, Harvey Bell, and Cindy smith, the Drug Court Case Manager.

“This court cannot operate without the assistance and leadership of Richard Minor and Carol Boone through the District Attorney’s Office, as well as participants from the community and members of the Drug Court Team,” he said.

Batemon said he is very excited about the startup of the Veterans’ Court and is proud of the judicial team in St. Clair County for supporting it.

“The Veterans Court addresses whatever a veteran has been arrested for, not specifically drugs—it could be theft or child support,” he said. “One of the main things is to see if there is anything that can be done to help that specific veteran on a case-by-case basis, because veterans have a different history than the rest of the population.”

Batemon said it has been documented that veterans sometimes have difficulty re-entering society. As Veterans Court programs expand across the country, there are more and more programs to help veterans re-enter society.

“The other side of the Veterans Court is the financial help it will give the county,” he said. “For every person we can keep out of incarceration, it is an actual savings of money in the operation of our jail.”

Batemon said in St. Clair County, it costs on average $50,000 per year to house a person in the county jail.

“If the Veterans’ Court can divert just 10 veterans per year into whichever program can help them best, it is easy to see the savings would be half-a-million dollars per year,” he said.

Batemon said it helps run the jail system in a more efficient manner as well at the same time it helps the veterans.

“We believe, and the record shows, that if an offender remains employed, pays taxes, participates in the Drug Court or VeteransCourt, pays child support, if applicable, and is held accountable for violations, he or she will be a better citizen in our community and a better family member,” Seay said. “We also hope that, through the Veterans Court, many issues that some veterans have, who find their way to the criminal justice system, can be resolved prior to even more serious consequences.”

Contact Elsie Hodnett at ehodnett@dailyhome.com.

© 2013