By Morgan Bryce
Veteran’s Court, a new program at the Lee County Justice Center, is offering veterans who have committed non-violent crimes a means of avoiding incarceration and becoming productive civilians.
Launched last December, Lee County joins 19 other Alabama counties and municipalities that have veteran’s court programs, and is led by 37th Judicial Circuit Court Judge Chris Hughes and Court Administrator Trisha Campbell.
Research by the U.S. Department for Veteran’s Affairs shows that 1 in 5 veterans from military operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom exhibit symptoms of mental health disorders like Post- Traumatic Stress Disorder or Traumatic Brain Injury, which can lead to substance abuse or up an uptick in violence and crime if left untreated.
More than 2,000 of Lee County’s 10,000-plus veterans served within the last 15 years according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates. Hughes said these statistics were one of the determining factors in starting the program.
“Eventually, we came to the conclusion that we had enough (veterans), and that it would be beneficial to the community,” Hughes said.
Campbell, who also coordinates the county’s Drug Court program, explained that veterans are brought to the program on a referral by an attorney or prosecutor. After filling out an application, the veteran’s entry into the program is determined by a screening committee, who evaluate the defendant’s background, criminal history and nature of the crime that they have most recently committed.
Once admitted, a veteran in the first phase of the program is partnered with a mentor who served in the same branch as them, bolstering camaraderie and offering them familiarity during the process.
The first phase requires one or two court appearances per month, with bi-weekly support groups and random drug testing for those with substance-abuse issues.
The next three phases include the same responsibilities, as well as 100 community service hours split between phases three and four, which Hughes said gives veterans a chance to get out and interact with the community.
“If they come to us with anything, and we can determine that it is a legitimate community service organization, that’s fine. It’s not limited to any one thing,” Hughes said.
Following completion of their community service hours, Campbell said that the veteran is then ready for graduation, which normally takes a year to achieve.
Since December, Campbell said they have added four veterans to the program, giving both she and Hughes hope that they are filling a crucial role in the area.
“Growing up as a military dependent, I have so much respect for those who have served and been in combat … every veteran we have right now has seen combat time. This program is kind of our way of giving back to their communities, and to recognize that they have unique experiences and circumstances that the rest of us can’t begin to understand or contemplate,” Campbell said.
“We see all the time in the general population of our county that there are people who break the law, and there’s different reasons in their background for that. That’s why we have programs like Veteran’s Court and the diversion program to try to address that … and to try to achieve justice, while at the same time, trying to promote a care for the community,” Hughes said.
Looking ahead, Hughes added that the main objective he wants to accomplish is improving the overall flow of the program to insure proper care for veterans.
“When we get a year down the road, I hope we’ll have built up a little institutional knowledge so to speak … and be able to smoothly say, ‘go to this source, go to that source,’” Hughes said.
For more information on the program or on how to be a mentor, call Trisha Campbell at (334) 737-3432.