Brown County Circuit Court Judge Kendall Kelley talks with a defendant and his advocate in veteran's court to discuss the progress being made in the case.
Many veterans who have volunteered to serve our nation and protect our freedoms carry scars invisible to many of us.
These scars might be covering wounds like post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), traumatic brain injuries (TBI), identity issues, relationship problems, or alcohol or drug usage. Many scars have either been created or enhanced while they served in the military and at times might be a contributing factor that leads a veteran to commit a crime.
Brown County 20/20 identified a need to invest in human capital to ensure that everyone in the community has the life skills and support to access the services they need to lead a purposeful and meaningful life. That is exactly what the Northeast Wisconsin Veteran's Treatment Court is doing under the leadership of Judge Kendall Kelley, a Navy veteran.
The first Veterans Treatment Court began in 2008 in Buffalo, N.Y., when Judge Robert Russell saw veterans carrying the scars mentioned above. He felt these warriors could be better helped by a specialty court model where veterans charged with a crime could be helped by a fellow veteran who fills the role of a mentor to support them during a troubled time in their lives. The Buffalo model has proven successful, and there are now over 100 such courts across the country.
How does the court work? It is not a free pass, rather it's an 18-month long voluntary program divided into four phases.
First, an evaluation is done with the charged veteran to see if he or she qualifies for the program. Then, an assessment helps to form an individual program for the veteran to follow. In every phase, the veteran must abstain from the use of alcohol or illegal drugs.
In the first phase, about four months, the participating veteran must appear in court every week and meet with his or her mentor for an hour a week. Depending on the veteran's assessment, he or she must also attend therapy either in a group or individually, and in some instances, seek inpatient treatment. At the mandated weekly court session, an atmosphere of support and encouragement prevails.
If a charged veteran advances to the next stage, or remains sober for an extended period of time, that achievement is acknowledged by a round of applause, and maybe a coffee mug is given as a token of success. On the other hand, if sobriety is not maintained, a weekend or longer in jail may help the veteran get back on the right track.
After spending 18 months in the veterans court and successfully completing the program, the charges against the veteran are either reduced or dropped. This is a cost-effective approach to helping veterans heal and become productive citizens, and it is mindful of public safety.
The Northeast Wisconsin Veteran's Treatment Court started accepting participants in March of 2012. We now have a dozen veterans in our specialty court that are progressing well. I'm an old, retired police officer who early in my career would never have bought into a program like this. But believe me, veterans court works. Bottom line, it's the right thing to leave no veteran behind.