When veterans come through the Greenwood city court, Judge Lewis Gregory notices something different.
Gregory can see shame and regret on the face and in the body language of a veteran standing before him, waiting to hear his or her punishment for breaking the law.
From possession of an illegal substance to driving while intoxicated, almost all of the crimes they are before Gregory for are drug or alcohol related. And Gregory said he sympathizes with their struggle to return to a normal life following combat overseas.
The city court has worked to help veterans who were arrested after turning to substance abuse as a way to handle mental and emotional distress, Gregory said.
Caseworkers have taken on five to eight veteran cases per year in the past, channeling them through an altered court and probation process that focuses more on helping them, rather than punishing them, Gregory said.
Now, the court will use about $52,000 in federal funding to hire a caseworker to take on as many as 45 to 50 veteran court cases per year, Gregory said. The new caseworker will earn a salary up to $48,000, and Gregory would like to find a veteran to handle the cases, Gregory said.
The court hasn’t had a surge in veteran court cases, but the expansion of a program to help veterans is long overdue, Gregory said.
“This is an urgent problem in our country. We have good men and women, pillars of their community, who join the military for all the right reasons, deploy and experience things we can’t imagine,” Gregory said.
“These are good citizens in bad situations and not entirely their own fault. They sacrifice for their country and end up in a courtroom, and it’s my belief that this is a group of people we should extend as much help to as we can.”
The new program will feature probation structured specifically for veterans, Gregory said. Veteran offenders will have half-hour to hour-long meetings with the caseworker every week focused around helping them get clean and healthy, mentally and emotionally, Gregory said.
Without the added position, taking the time to meet with every veteran once a week would not be possible with the court’s current staffing, Gregory said.
Veterans are only eligible for the program if they commit a victimless or non-violent crime, Gregory said. And the prosecutor or veteran’s attorney would have to recommend their case to the veterans court program. Then, the Veterans Health Administration would do a screening for mental health issues, which would be followed by the same type of assessment by a team from the city court, Gregory said.
Greenwood city court already has a recovery court that focuses on helping offenders with substance abuse issues. Johnson County Prosecutor Brad Cooper has relied heavily on the program, especially with the increase in heroin usage among offenders, Cooper said.
Veterans have also been included in that program. But including veterans with offenders who may have been arrested their fifth or sixth time and have no desire or ambition to get clean can sometimes be a detriment because of the environment, Gregory said.
By being in a court program with only veterans, they can interact with one another and even serve as a support system, Gregory said.
Assisting veterans through a separate court system is the best way to get them the help they need, and it’s a service that is lacking in this country, Cooper said.
“The lack of help for our veterans is a national disgrace. These people are American heroes that come back and have human problems, so they self-medicate with drugs and alcohol. Veterans court will treat them the way recovery court does, but also open the door for other treatments,” Cooper said.
“Are veterans treated differently? Absolutely they are. We want to do everything we possibly can for those who have served our country.”