By Lori A. Roper
Many young men and women enlist in the Armed Forces because they believe in the mission of the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines or Coast Guard. They serve our country unselfishly, with bravery and honor. But sometimes our soldiers return from service with issues that need to be addressed. Unfortunately for some, the issues take the form of mental health, drug health or emotional issues. It is at this intersection that a veteran can pick up an arrest that leads him or her to Veterans Treatment Court.
Veterans Treatment Courts are courts tailored to the specific needs of vets who come in contact with the Criminal Justice system by way of being arrested and charged with a felony.
The Illinois statute that governs the Veterans Treatment Court, also referred to as the VTC, is 730 ILCS 167/20. In order to be eligible for VTC, the vet must be: charged with a nonviolent felony, have no violent convictions within the last 10 years, have verified military service and cannot have a dishonorable discharge.
If a vet is directed to the court and he/she has other than an honorable discharge, the vet can obtain services through TASC – Treatment Alternatives for Safe Communities.
If a vet decides to become a part of VTC, the vet must plead guilty to the charge. The veteran is put on 24 months probation that concentrates on the particular needs of the veteran, such as drug or mental health treatment, housing and employment opportunities. Caseworkers come from the Veterans Administration offices to work with the participants.
The “America’s Heroes Group” broadcast that aired on Saturday, March 30, 2019 saluted Saturday’s guest, Judge Darron Bowden, thanking him for all the work he does for veterans as it spotlighted his work at the Veterans Court he presided over in the Markham Court House. Bowden has had years of experience dealing with veterans struggling with drug addiction, mental health issues, and homelessness. Bowden spoke of how he has a deep respect for veterans because of his wife being a veteran of Operation Desert Storm.
He shared with the audience how his background as a pastor helped him to relate and show genuine compassion for the veterans who appeared before him. He also explained the importance of Veterans Court and provided a historical perspective, telling the listening audience the historic beginnings of Veterans Court.
Veterans Court was started by African-American Judge Robert Russell in Buffalo, NY in 2008. The model is based on drug treatment and mental health courts; treatment is offered as an alternative to incarceration. Veterans Treatment Court began in Cook County in 2009. As of 2016 there were 461 veteran focused court programs in the U.S. An astonishing 115 were created in 2015, validating the need for veteran focused programs.
During the legal round table, Judge Bowden emphasized that the program is hard, but worth the effort. The highlight of VTC is the graduation ceremony for veterans who have successfully completed the program. The vets are recognized for their accomplishment and receive a certificate of completion. The graduates are asked to say a few words about the VTC experience.
Judge Bowden spoke of the need for additional treatment and service options for veterans, especially in the South Suburbs like Markham, and all over the country. During the round table, there was a caller with a question regarding services for a paralyzed Vietnam vet, which emphasized the need for specialized veteran services that Judge Bowden talked about.
The information shared with the caller highlights how important a weekly talk show like “America’s Heroes Group” is. All over the country there is someone who knows a veteran who might benefit from the information guests share with the listening audience.
America’s Heroes Group airs weekly on WVON AM 1690, Saturdays from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. CST, and is simultaneously broadcast on the iHeart Radio app.
Lori Roper is Attorney Supervisor, Problem-Solving Courts, Law Office of the Cook County Public Defender.