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Veteran's Court opens

by Andrew Maciejewski - amaciejewski@h-ponline.com

A new problem-solving court is available for Huntington County veterans to provide them with treatment instead of jail time for substance-abuse-related crimes, which leaders say has a higher success rate than civilian court.

Former Circuit County Judge Jamie Groves said while traditional courts are happy to see a 25 percent success rate in reduced recidivism and drug use, area Veteran’s Court programs see anywhere between a 75 to 80 percent success rate. He attributes the success to the structure of the court.

“People who’ve served in the military… they’re used to structure in their lives,” Groves said. “They’re used to serving something bigger than themselves. There’s a certain honor in it that this program specifically is made to address. It’s almost like you’re giving them back that structure that they had when they were in the military.”

Huntington County veterans who are actively serving or were honorably discharged are eligible to take part in the program, no matter what service, including the Coast Guard and National Guard.

Eligible veterans will be sent to Whitley County’s program, since Whitley County Superior Court Judge Doug Fahl oversees the program and has a military background. Groves said Fahl has a rank of Major, which helps provide veterans with a situation they’re familiar with.

“He talks to them as a major and not just as a judge,” Groves said. “They hear that, and I think it resonates with them.”

Past VFW State Commander Rodney Funk has been working to establish veteran’s courts in every county in Indiana since he oversaw the state from 2012 to 2014. He said he was able to set them up in all of the surrounding counties, expect here, saying, “It was like beating my head against a wall” until Groves was sworn in.

Funk said he wanted it so badly because he believes that the program tries to identify underlying mental health issues or reasons why they might be struggling.

“That’s the whole idea: looking at the cause of it. That is obviously not being offered in a civilian court, so that is why I’m just thrilled,” Funk said. “My whole life has basically been serving veterans, and I wanted this so bad.”

He said the mentors are a big part because they are on call at all hours of the day to help them through tough times, and they are matched by branch of military to make sure they are comfortable and can build a relationship.

Groves said the program is not available for all criminal charges, like violent felonies or crimes against children, but he said that most property crimes, thefts, impaired driving and some felonies could possibly be reduced or kept off veteran’s records with successful completion of the 12-to-18-month-long program.

“It’s a harder program than you’re average person going through court, but the benefits could include as much as a dismissal of the crime, a reduction of the crime from a felony to a misdemeanor or the court could withhold judgment altogether on the came, even if there’s a plea of guilty entered,” Groves said.

To get into the program, veterans can ask the judge in court, tell their attorney or even an arresting officer that they would like to be a part of the program, and family members can even nominate them for the program.

“I think a lot of times the folks that have served in the military don’t necessarily want to volunteer up that they’ve served in the military during a criminal case,” Groves said. “They won’t say it, but a family member might say, ‘You know what, he’s too proud to say it, but he’s served in the military. He’s going through a tough time right now, and I’ve read about this veterans court. It’s something he might benefit from.’ I want to have every possible person to know that these tools are out there.”

 There are three phases to the program, where Groves said participants are appearing in court on a more regular basis than typical defendants.

The first stage involves weekly hearings to report on progress coupled with counseling sessions and provided mentorship. Each hearing they are evaluated by their service providers from drug and alcohol treatment workers, community corrections staff and the judge, and they are either given a small reward, like a gift card for a restaurant, or a sanction, such as extra counseling, community service or possibly a short stint of jail time.

In the second phase, they only meet every other week, and in the final phase, they only meet about once a month before graduation.

The program is individualized to ensure that the veterans are completing the tasks necessary to beat their addictions and improve their mental health.

“It’s my impression that the effort you put in really dictates length,” Groves said.

Sheriff Chris Newton, Superior Court Judge Jennifer Newton, Circuit Court Judge Davin Smith and Prosecutor Amy Richison are on board with the new problem-solving court.

Currently, Funk is looking for veterans who wish to serve as mentors to help these veterans along their path to recovery. Anyone interested is encouraged to reach out to Huntington County Superior Court at (260) 358-4852 or email superiorcourt@huntington.in.us.

Donations for rewards are also appreciated, which can be dropped off at the Huntington County Courthouse, 201 N Jefferson St, Huntington, Ind. 46750.