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Veterans Court Helps Offenders Find Their Way

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Early last summer, Escambia County established a Veterans Court where vets who got in trouble with the law could try to get their lives straightened out and avoid jail time. Escambia County Circuit Court Judge Edward Nickinson modeled the Veterans Court after the Drug Court that has been operating in the county for over 20 years. "The Veterans' Treatment Court is designed to provide services and assistance to veterans who are charged with various crimes, particularly if we think those crimes are related to either disabilities or injuries  or other things connected with their service. So we work in partnership with the V.A. and with other treatment providers to try to help shepherd the veterans through the treatment  and eventually have them come out the other end at graduation not repeating the behavior that got them in trouble with the law and being the productive and useful members of society that they were before they got in trouble with the law."

Now that the court has been up and running for six months or so, Judge Nickinson says they’ve been slowly bringing in veterans to the program. "It's been as busy as we want it to be. Because this is a year-long process and we see them in court, for the first half of it at least, every other week. And there are limits to how many we can see each week I haven't wanted it to grow too fast. If we had too many we'd have a whole bunch of them graduate at once and all of a sudden we'd be empty. So at this point we have 18 veterans being seen by the court. We may add another one or two (in the coming weeks). Just this past week we did a training (session) for our first group of mentors who will be working with our veterans."

Those mentors are also veterans, that’s a requirement, and their job is to basically be a friend to the vets going through the court program. "Someone our participants can talk with , go to with their problems, give them assistance with some things, but basically someone to be there with them and be there for them. It also means they come to court with them so the participants are not standing there by themselves in the court room."

Judge Nickinson says the people brought into the Veterans’ Court are, for the most part, not accused of serious violent offenses. He says there have been some domestic violence cases and DUIs, offenses he calls behavioral that could be traced back to their service and interferes with living a normal life. Regardless of the charge, for a veteran to be accepted everyone involved has to be on board including prosecutors. "The state attorny doesn't have an absolute veto, but we have not yet taken anyone in and I don't anticipate, unless something odd happens we don't take anyone in who does not have the agreement of the state attorney to have that person participate in the Veterans Treatment Court."

The reaction so far has been positive, even from family members who may have been victims of the veteran’s offense. But Judge Nickinson admits that sooner or later someone will fail the program. "Nothing works with everyone. Veterans Treatment Court is new to me but it's a lot like Drug Court which I've done for decades. ... But we're dealing with human beings. Some of them are going to succeed, some of them are not. We have not yet reached a point where we have done a violation of probation and sentenced someone to incarceration out of veterans court. We have modified some things where we've been doing outpatient treatment we've got some of them doing inpatient treatment now. Some of them have returned from inpatient treatment and are now doing outpatient again. But it's predictable that we'll have some number who simply won't succeed. Either the pathology will get them or they just weren't very good candidates to begin with and we wind up sending them to jail or prison."

One thing that took the judge by surprise is the way the participants in the program came together. "I did not serve, myself, I have not been in  the military. One of the things that has fascinated me is that we have most of our people in units of four or five or six doing therapy together. They're starting to look like platoons and looking out for each other. They stay in court and appear with each other and support each other there. that, I think, is one of the real strengths of this. A lot of the premise of the Veterans Treatment Court is for these folks to remember what it was like to be part of a unit and have some unit cohesion and counting on each other and having responsibilities to each other. We had one fellow who we simply could not get to stop using drugs and we wound up sending him off for some inpatient treatment. But on the day he left, he turned around and apologized to his unit-mates for having let them down. That was really moving, and I think it's going to serve him well when he comes back."

The Veteran’s Treatment Court is a 12 month program, so the first veterans should be ready to graduate in a few months. Judge Nickinson says he expects many of them will, however whether or not charges will be wiped from the veteran’s record is a question that’s answered on a case by case process. He says it largely depends on if they had prior offenses on their record.