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The Aim of Veterans Court: No Vet Left Behind
April 25, 2016 by Judge David Law

NOVI, MI - As a District Court Judge, people often ask me “what is the most rewarding part of your job”? Without hesitation, I answer that it is the ability I have to participate in the treatment Courts, specifically the Veterans Court Program, conducted here at the 52-1 District Court. I wanted to write about the program today because I feel it is important for citizens to know about the good things going on in their local courts, and it is imperative that veterans learn about this valuable resource available to them. I serve on the 52-1 bench with fellow Judges Robert Bondy and Travis Reeds and we all believe that the most rewarding aspect of our particular job is when we are able to help people turn their lives around. The Veterans Court program gives us that opportunity.

The 52-1 District Court serves a number of communities including South Lyon, Lyon Township, Novi, Walled Lake, Wixom, Milford Township, Village of Milford, Commerce Township and Highland Township. Participants in the Vet Court program need not live in those communities, they can live anywhere in Oakland County. Over the past decade, various types of specialty court programs have emerged in Michigan. More than 164 various specialty courts exist in the 83 counties in Michigan, and Oakland County is among the most comprehensive statewide.

Veteran Treatment Courts (VTCs) are court programs governed by statute (MCL 600.1201), both circuit courts and district courts have jurisdiction to preside over VTC programs. While not common to every state, Michigan courts have taken the lead and developed programs designed to address the very specialized problems that affect our veterans. Michigan currently has approximately 22 active and functioning VTCs, up from 8 in 2013. The basic model involves a team approach with coordination between local law enforcement, prosecutors, defense bar, probation departments and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). Veterans Treatment Court is an intensive, collaborative response to veterans who present with a certain set of substance abuse (and/or other issues) in the criminal justice system. It generally involves a probationary period of approximately 18 months in total, with several phases and tiers staggered in 3-4 month intervals. The program begins with extremely high intensity monitoring including multiple drug and alcohol tests, weekly counseling, weekly probation meetings, daily AA/NA meetings, mandatory VA participation and bi-weekly judicial hearings.

There are more veterans in our county, and living here in Michigan, than you might think. Since 9/11, more than 2 million troops have served overseas. Tragically, about 1/3 return home with some form of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from their service. And many have some form of related issues, with alcohol and substance abuse foremost among them. One critical element of every VTC is close coordination with VA liaisons who participate in the team model, and help match each veteran with the resources they need. Probation officers, defense advocates, county department team members and judges meet regularly to monitor each participant’s successes and failures. The program revolves around drug and alcohol testing, substance abuse and mental health counseling, as well as support groups. Many VTC programs (including 52-1) also rely heavily on the voluntary participation of mentors—servicemen and women who donate their time to meet with and guide participants as they make their way through the rigors of the program. Their assistance is invaluable.

Statistics clearly show that problem solving courts such as VTCs have a positive impact on community safety. General recidivism (re-offense) rates for district court programs like this are about 4%, with the rate outside of such programs at about 16%. Yes, the program is intensive. Yes, the program takes a substantial time investment. But the most important thing is that the program works. The additional commitment of time and effort can be challenging for judges and members of the team, but witnessing the success of the participants is incredibly rewarding. Our veterans have done so much for us, this is the least we can do for them!