District Judge Jeffrey Poulson knows that military veterans, many having served multiple tours of duty in recent wars, are entering Woodbury County’s courtrooms in trouble.
They fought for their country in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now some are fighting drug and alcohol addictions and mental health problems and committing crimes.
“They come back broken, and we’re starting to see them in our court system,” Poulson said.
Poulson is leading the effort to establish a Veterans Treatment Court in Woodbury County, a program that would get veterans of any age who commit crimes in Woodbury County needed help and, he hopes, keep them out of jail. It would be the first such court in Iowa. Poulson hopes it’s operational by Jan. 1.
There are different models for veterans courts, Poulson said, but local organizers envision one that would match offenders with a mentor, a fellow veteran with similar military experiences. An Iraq combat veteran would be paired with another veteran with combat experience, for example.
Mentors are not meant to be counselors, but rather someone the offender can go to for advice, said Lt. Col. Jim Walker, operations group commander at the 185th Air Refueling Wing of the Iowa Air National Guard and the veterans court mentor coordinator. He’s looking to start with 20 volunteer mentors.
“They’re just someone who can listen and help,” Walker said. “The important factor is (the offenders) need someone they can relate to and trust.”
In addition to mentoring, a judge could order offenders to seek mental health or substance abuse treatment and receive help enrolling for services through the Veterans Administration. Those who fail could be sentenced to jail. Incentives would reward positive behavior. The program would be comparable to Drug Court, Family Treatment Court and Project Compass, diversionary programs already operating successfully in Woodbury County.
There are more than 150 veterans courts in the United States, and more than 100 in the planning stage, said Chris Deutsch, director of communications at Justice for Vets, a division of the National Association of Drug Court Professionals, which helps jurisdictions set up the programs.
It’s an idea that has spread since the first court in Buffalo, N.Y., in 2008. “It really brought out of the shadows a lot of criminal justice professionals who realized they could better serve veterans,” Deutsch said.
In April, Justice for Vets personnel trained Woodbury County volunteers, including court administrators, prosecutors, public defenders, substance abuse and mental health treatment providers and the Veterans Administration.
Becky Hess, veterans justice outreach coordinator with the VA in Sioux Falls, S.D., said the court could help connect veterans with VA care or find them services with private providers. She has observed similar courts in other states. “The initial evidence at this point is excellent. The success rate is high,” she said.
Still unknown in Woodbury County is where funding would come from and how many veterans might be served. Poulson said that at least one veteran a day goes through the Woodbury County Jail, but jailers have been asking about military service status during jail bookings only since the beginning of the year.
“We don’t know how many of these people are out there,” Poulson said.
Funds would be needed for random drug testing, Poulson said, and the program may also need a paid administrator. Poulson said he hopes volunteers and donors will step forward to give back to troubled men and women who have given their service.
“This isn’t a problem that’s going away,” Poulson said. “These guys will be dealing with this for the next 60 years.”
The main purpose of a veterans court is to help military veterans receive treatment for conditions, such as substance abuse or mental illness, that may be root causes for their brushes with the law.
Woodbury County’s plan is to have a judge order the veteran to participate in the program, during which evaluations may lead him or her to various treatment programs and services, many of which may be provided through the Veterans Administration.