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A second chance for vets

February 20, 2014 - 12:05am

Veterans Treatment Court — a specialized court that takes a holistic approach to healing U.S. Armed Forces veterans who’ve found themselves in the criminal justice system — is being considered for Hawaii Island.

Third Circuit Court Chief Judge Ronald Ibarra told West Hawaii Today on Wednesday that he hopes to have the treatment court open and offering services to clients by the end of this year on Hawaii Island. He envisions starting relatively small, with four clients each in East and West Hawaii.

“These veterans are willing to give the ultimate sacrifice — their life,” said Ibarra about the need for specialized treatment for veterans in the Judiciary’s 3rd Circuit, which comprises all of Hawaii Island. “Then they come up from service and serving our country with service-connected disabilities.”

He later added, “It’s about time.”

A stakeholders meeting, which will include police, public defender, prosecutor, Veterans Affairs and judicial officials, is planned this coming week to discuss the feasibility of a treatment court for Hawaii Island, Ibarra said. If determined feasible, a memorandum of understanding would be needed and procedures and policy would have to be in place before clients can be accepted.

The treatment court would be incorporated into the Big Island Drug Court in order to get it going, said Ibarra, who is a veteran of the Vietnam War — serving in the administrative sector. Once the Veterans Treatment Court gets on its feet, grants and other sources of funding, including state and federal money, will be sought to support ongoing operations.

Hawaii’s first Veterans Treatment Court got underway in January 2013 with three defendants, or clients, on Oahu, in the state Judiciary’s First Circuit and now boasts 10 male participants, said Marcy Brown, First Circuit Court Veterans Treatment Court coordinator. Funding to establish the program was covered by a nearly $350,000 Bureau of Justice Assistance grant to the Judiciary in late 2012.

Each of the clients selected to participate in the treatment court have all served in the U.S. Armed Forces — both honorably and less-than-honorably discharged — and have experienced difficulties in returning to society with many suffering mental health, including post-traumatic stress disorder, and substance abuse issues, she said. Some also suffer from traumatic brain injury. Their crimes must be nonviolent.

Clients who participate in the court are provided the resources and treatment needed to get healthy, employed and acclimated back into society, Brown explained. That includes help finding jobs and secure housing, among others.

“It’s really like trying to put something that’s been broken back together again,” Brown explained.

Those tools come via a team that consists of the judge, which in the First Circuit is Judge Ed Kubo, prosecutors, public defenders, Veterans Administration service officers, and volunteer mentors, who are veterans themselves and assigned to just one client.

The program is split into four phases and lasts a minimum of 18 months, Brown said. The first phase requires weekly court visits; second phase bi-weekly visits; third phase requires court visits once every three weeks; and the fourth phase requires a once-per-month hearing before the court.

Clients are also subject to urine analysis and other measures of success. Violations of the program terms result in immediate consequences that are tailored specifically to the veteran and situation, she said.

The nation’s first Veterans Treatment Court was founded in January 2008 by judge Robert Russell in Buffalo, N.Y., after he noticed the number of veterans appearing on his Drug Court and Mental Health Court dockets increasing, according to Justice for Vets, a professional services division of the National Association of Drug Court professionals, the 501(c)(3) resource for Drug Court practitioners.

Working with the local Veterans Affairs Medical Center and volunteer veterans in the community, the treatment court was developed to focus exclusively on veterans in the courts system.

Veterans Treatment Court is modeled after drug courts, which promote collaboration among the judiciary, community corrections agencies, drug treatment providers, and other community support groups. The first drug court began in 1989 in Florida as a means for addressing recidivism among drug-related offenders.

As of June 2012, the most recent data made available by Justice for Vets, there were 104 Veterans Treatment Courts with hundreds more planned. A check of the Justice for Vets website’s interactive map of courts, showed 134 courts in existence as of February.

National data on the success of Veterans Treatment courts is hard to come by, however, in February 2013, the Veterans Administration released a report on the administration’s involvement with the treatment courts stating that 7,724 veterans had been admitted to the courts with the average length of involvement between 15 to 18 months, and slightly longer for felony offenders.

About two-thirds completed the court and health care treatment regime successfully, according to the report.

Data on Veterans Treatment Court recidivism rates, the percent of people who complete the program but subsequently re-offend, could not be found on the national level. Some local jurisdictions have released data regarding recidivism rates, including the first Veterans Treatment Court in Buffalo which said it had a zero percent recidivism rate during its first two years in existence.

In Hawaii’s First Circuit, none of the Veterans Treatment Court participants there has been dismissed from the program, said Brown, the Veterans Treatment Court coordinator on Oahu. The treatment court has also yet to graduate any participants, she added, noting it takes a minimum of 18 months to complete the program.