State News

October 27, 2013

New court aims to help veterans

A young veteran had just returned from Afghanistan.

Injured in a car wreck, he became addicted to pain pills.

After being charged with theft, he recently found his way to Judge Tripp Self’s courtroom.

Instead of handling the case like others in Bibb County Superior Court, Self, District Attorney David Cooke and public defender Lee Robinson are working out a way to get the young veteran the help he needs and not just send him off to prison.

He is an example of the kind of person Self, Cooke and Robinson hope to help in a new Veterans Court set to start operating in January.

“In today’s age with the global war on terror, the war in Iraq, the war in Afghanistan, there’s no question that these people who are coming back do have some special needs that the criminal justice system is not meeting in the right way,” Self said. “These guys coming back have (post-traumatic stress disorder) and (traumatic brain injuries), and they’re not really aware of some of the services that they’re entitled to.”

The Veterans Court would provide an opportunity for veterans to admit their crimes but be sentenced to complete treatment offered by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs instead of punishment. If they successfully complete the program, they won’t have a conviction on their record.

While Cooke and Robinson said the cases eligible for the court will be determined on a case-by-case basis, Cooke said cases considered will be ones rooted in drug addiction or self-medication that can be traced back to post-traumatic stress disorder. Examples include drug possession, theft committed to fund drug dependency and sometimes family violence.

“Many times, there are a number of circumstances that affect the veterans because of their service. ... I think it’s only right given what they have done for our country that we administer justice appropriately and in light of those circumstances,” Cooke said.

Self said the program isn’t going to be a “get out of jail free card for veterans.”

They will be held accountable, and if someone doesn’t complete the program, they’ll be returned to the traditional criminal justice system, he said.

“This is going to be an opportunity for people who meet the criteria to get some help,” Self said.

To be eligible, veterans must be signed up to receive government veteran health services, Robinson said.

As part of organizing the new court program, the judge, Cooke and Robinson are consulting their counterparts in jurisdictions that already have Veterans Courts, Robinson said.

State records show Georgia has five Veterans Courts.

The first was established in the Towaliga Circuit in 2009. The Towaliga Circuit comprises Monroe, Lamar and Butts counties.

Police were seeing an increase in the number of veterans being arrested who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and other battle-specific problems, Towaliga Circuit Judge William Fears said.

In the years the court has been in operation, Fears said it has become clear some veterans were too embarrassed to ask for help or were afraid they would lose their veterans’ benefits if they got in trouble with the law.

While the program has been successful, the number of veterans returning to Monroe, Lamar and Butts counties has dropped off, and the program isn’t as busy as it once was, he said.

But the veterans who have completed the program have had a repeat offender rate of less than 20 percent, Fears said.

While numbers aren’t available for how many veterans passing through Bibb County Superior Court would be eligible for Veterans Court, Bibb County is a natural fit for the program because of its proximity to Robins Air Force Base and sizable military population.

“There’s a lot of need here,” Self said.

The Bibb County court will utilize resources from the already established drug and mental health courts to get off the ground without additional funding, he said.

Self, who will preside over the court, said part of the idea is that the Bibb court will be a court for veterans run by veterans.

After graduating from The Citadel, Self served as a U.S. Army field artillery officer from 1990 to 1994. His first duty assignment was an extended tour in Korea.

“I’ve been overseas. I know what it’s like to be away from your family and have that transition back,” he said.

As a result, he wants to help other veterans.

Cooke said newly hired prosecutor Craig Neprud, a former Army infantry officer who led combat missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, will be the district attorney’s office liaison for the program.

“He’s lived combat,” Cooke said. “There is no substitute for experience.”

Robinson, who served as an Army infantry platoon leader in Vietnam and decades in the reserves, said he will handle cases for his office initially. He hopes to later assign a veteran to the job.

While waiting for the program to start, Self, prosecutors and an attorney for the young Afghanistan veteran charged with theft are trying to work out a way to handle his case using the Veterans Court model.

“It’s the right thing to do,” Self said.

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