Veterans Treatment Court Taking First Steps 10/2/17 10/03/17 10:42:48 AM
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A valuable part of the Veterans Court process is veterans making presentations in court. Here a budding chef shares his recent successes with Judge W. Mark Ashford.
Still in Its Infancy
Veterans Treatment Court Taking First Steps
By Lorraine Boyd
The Daily Record
It was almost a year ago when Nebraska’s Veterans Treatment Court was introduced to the legal community at the State Bar Association’s Annual Meeting in October 2016. Less than a month later, the Court was officially open for business.
The Veterans Treatment Court, a judicially supervised court, was designed to hold responsible and address the unique needs of military veterans who have been charged with various felony crimes in Douglas County, Neb. The three-year pilot project began on November 4, 2016. Those administering the Court expected about 30 veterans to be admitted to the program initially.
Prime movers of the Court – Hon. W. Mark Ashford, presiding judge of the Douglas County Young Adult Court, and Thomas (Mick) Wagoner Jr., J.D., who heads the Veterans Legal Support Network (VLSN) – wanted offenders who had served their country in the military to get a second chance.
Ashford and Douglas County District Court Judge James Gleason serve as the Court’s judges. Nebraska Senator John McCollister, whose LB 915 created the Court, and then-U.S. Representative Brad Ashford spearheaded the Court’s creation.
Creating the court took the time, effort and expertise of many entities and individuals, including members of the Nebraska Unicameral, Governor Pete Ricketts; Nebraska Supreme Court Chief Justice Mike Heavican; Nebraska Governor Pete Ricketts; Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine; Dr. David Williams, chief of staff, VA Nebraska-Western Iowa Health Care System; Problem-Solving Court Statewide Coordinator Scott Carlson; Nebraska State Probation Officer/Young Adult Court Coordinator Bob Blanchard; Jeffrey Lux of the Douglas County Attorney’s office; Ret. Air Force Col. Eric Dillow, and many more.
Years of work went into crafting this specialized Court for Douglas County; planners learned that Veterans Treatment Courts have a very high success rate, approaching 100 percent, around the country. LB 919, the priority bill of State Sen. Matt Williams of Gothenburg, grew out of discussions of how to cut prison spending in Nebraska and switch to lower-cost punishments such as drug courts.
The Court joined the other Nebraska problem-solving courts: Adult Drug Court, Juvenile Drug Court, Family Drug Court, Young Adult Court and DUI Court. Other counties, especially Lancaster County, are taking a close look at the Court with an eye to duplicating it.
Wagoner said he wished more people would “come and see [the Court in action] and then tell friends what they experienced.” He added, “We have started a 501c3 charity called the Metro Omaha Veterans Treatment Court Foundation so that folks can support the Court’s efforts with a tax-advantaged gift.”
The original bill allocated about $440,000 over two years for the project.
MentorsThe Court’s first volunteer veteran mentors were sworn in during that November 4 ceremony by Presiding Judge Ashford. They were Rosebeth Behm, USAF; Mike Brookover, USA; Jim Butler, USAF; Eric Dillow, USAF; Tim Karstrom, USA; Eddie Nelson, USA/USAF; Rita Norris, USAR; Tami Osburn, Volunteer Coordinator; Sherie Peterson, USAR Volunteer; Joel Schneider, USMC; Scot Schneider, USA; and Harry Thode, USA.
Veteran felony offenders may be in the treatment court program for 18 to 24 months, so the Court holds sessions periodically to review their progress. They are given assignments and make oral presentations in court to the judge and fellow participants.
The Court’s success would not be possible without the volunteer mentors. The bonds they forge with the participants are obvious. “We need everyone available to be there when these veterans are struggling,” Blanchard said at the inaugural ceremony. “This whole project is a community project. I see it more than just the criminal justice system working with individuals. I see it … being a referral source for their families….”
We watched one day in August as veteran after veteran, most accompanied by their mentors, addressed the Court. The eloquence of their remarks, this time explaining how they are grateful for their mentors, was notable. This was a second chance, a new beginning, they said. They were filled with gratitude and confidence. They were reclaiming their lives, earning degrees, learning new skills, getting promotions, patching up relationships. They open up their hearts, every one of them. The refrain was familiar. We’ve heard it at the graduations of other diversion courts. It’s hard not to get emotional. And it’s easy to see the power of this program. Since the program is only a year old, there have been no graduations yet.
Two new mentors, Sherry Bryant and Howard Ball, were sworn in by Judge Ashford that day. Mentor Coordinator Sherie G. Peterson (Assistant Chief Deputy, Clerk of the Court) said, “We currently have 15 trained mentors on our roster with another handful waiting for their training, for a total of 20 – so far, but we're always looking for more.”