Tuesday, March 21, 2023

County approves Veterans Treatment Court

$350,000 DOJ grant will fund a veterans recovery program to tackle underlying issues, keep vets out of jail

New Hanover County will establish a Veterans Treatment Court from DOJ grant funding. (Port City Daily/file)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — Veterans often suffer with a myriad of mental health and substance abuse issues from their time in the military. Many wind up in the court system as a result of these associated behavioral problems. New Hanover County is taking steps to mitigate this impact on veterans by establishing a Veterans Treatment Court (VTC).

Awarded nearly $350,000 from the Department of Justice, New Hanover County will implement its VTC after unanimous approval Monday from the board of commissioners.

“We tracked data about this prior to applying [for the grant]; we tracked jail intake and intake at probation,” Chief District Court Judge J.H. Corpening told commissioners. “And the need is extraordinary.”

Corpening told Port City Daily that based on research, roughly 243 veterans would benefit from this recovery program annually.

The board members all echoed sentiments about how significant this program could be for the county, which is home to about 15,000 veterans.

“As a veteran myself, it’s so important that we find ways to take care of those that serve,” commissioner Jonathan Barfield said at the meeting. “There are so many coming home from wars that have PTSD and a host of mental issues that lead to substance use disorders. It’s important to not only recognize that but to find the proper way to treat them. I am looking forward to seeing this implemented.”

Chair Julia Olson-Boseman said during her time as a criminal defense attorney, she often saw people with underlying conditions come through the system facing minor criminal charges — many of them were vets.

“Locking someone away for 30 days is not going to fix the problem,” she told Port City Daily. “If they have underlying conditions and served our country, they deserve a little extra special treatment and help with their issues — issues we know nothing about.”

The money, to be disbursed over the course of four years, will establish the VTC to support veterans involved in the justice system due to mental health disorders, trauma and substance use.

The structure is similar to drug treatment and mental health courts. Court officials, community partners and law enforcement will cooperate to extend resources in lieu of jail time, giving veterans the help they need.

There are currently only four veterans’ treatment courts in the state and roughly 2,000 veterans incarcerated in N.C. on any given day.

“The idea is similar to our traditional recovery court,” Corpening explained. “The idea is to keep them out of jail and provide support services they need to change the behavior and help them be more connected and more productive.”

Veterans Court would provide an alternative to jail time for high-risk veterans and ensure they maintain their benefits. According to the N.C. Judicial Branch, veterans treatment court has 10 key components including a non-adversarial approach, integrating drug and mental health services, ongoing judicial interaction, evaluating program goals and effectiveness and connecting veterans with community partnerships.

New Hanover County plans to review national models for veterans treatment courts as well as what seems to be working statewide to tailor an approach to local residents.

The county’s veteran services department supports roughly 2,000 veterans each year with disability claims, property tax relief, VA loans, healthcare, education benefits and more. Veterans’ court would be an extension of that. Court proceedings would also include collaboration from the district attorney’s office and Veteran Affairs (VA) with a goal to resolve issues that led veterans to wind up in the justice system to begin with.

Veterans court offers a specially designed and distinctive set up from a traditional court setting to implement more military procedure and jargon, familiar to veterans.

“It looks and sounds different than regular court,” Corpening said. “The words chosen and used are designed to be familiar and make a stronger connection with our veterans to offer them the respect they deserve and need.”

Veterans in the program will receive a mentor, also a veteran, for peer support.

The DOJ grant will also cover the annual salary and benefits for a full-time veterans’ treatment court coordinator. With the board’s support to move forward, the county will begin seeking applicants. Once that person is hired, Corpening estimates it could take an additional three to four months to get started.

The coordinator will serve as the core liaison between the court system and community partner agencies, including the county’s Veteran Services. This person will also screen potential participants for program eligibility.

Any remaining grant funds will be used to provide supplemental services to support veterans in their treatment.

The county is required to provide a 25% match to the grant, which can be offered with in-kind services as opposed to direct payment. According to county spokesperson Jessica Loeper, employees’ time toward management of the grant, including data collection and fiscal oversight, can be counted as its contribution.

Prior to the grant’s expiration in September 2025, the county will reevaluate if the program should continue to be funded out of the local budget.

Corpening said N.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Paul Newby is looking to expand veterans’ courts statewide.

“I am hoping to see more spring up in places where there are large concentrations of vets,” he said.

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