By Natalie Salvatore
For the Opelika
The Lee County Veterans Court Program provides an opportunity for veterans dealing with personal or criminal issues to turn their lives around and become positive members of the community.
Court Administrator Trisha Campbell highlighted the court’s 2018 accomplishments. The court screened 20 people, graduated four veterans, and terminated two. She makes up a part of the staff that runs the court. Except for the defense attorney, everyone on the staff is nonpaid, and mostly all took on these additional roles along with their current jobs.
She explained how the veterans court is similar to drug court and often, the names are used interchangeably. The difference is that the veterans court has added mentors that the drug court does not have.
Last year’s total operating budget for veterans and drug court was $26,641.45, with a majority of funding from participant fees.
“The support from the Lee County Commission has been tremendous from the very beginning. They have supported us financially and in any way that they could,” Campbell said.
Campbell said their other community partners have also made this court possible. The partners consist of the Auburn Police Department, the Opelika Police Department, the Lee County Sheriff, Alabama Occupational Medicine, the Opelika Addiction Center, the Veteran’s Administration, the Auburn University Veteran Resource Center and Specialized Location Services.
Veterans who are working, in school, or disabled that have been charged with anything in Lee County, except with a crime for violence, domestic violence, or any kind of drug manufacturing or trafficking, can apply to court. An assessment is performed to see if the veteran is suffering from a substance abuse issue prior to the committee’s decision.
The screening committee, made up of the judge, the defense attorney, the sheriff, the treatment coordinator, the district attorney and the court administrator, looks at the incoming applications and decides who to accept and who to terminate.
If the committee accepts the veteran’s application, they are now a part of the program that will last from 12 to 24 months, depending on the situation. The veterans enter a plea but the judge does not adjudicate them guilty.
The program consists of four phases. Veterans petition the court to progress to each higher stage. Campbell said this first 90-day phase consists of requiring veterans to attend two AA/NA meetings per week to develop a support system. “They need to make positive, supportive connections in the community,” Campbell said. Besides the weekly meetings, participants also must undergo treatment depending on what their assessment recommends. This could consist of anything from residential treatment to an educational program for a DUI. Court is also mandatory.
Next, veterans stay in phase two until they finish treatment. There is a different protocol for everyone, based on the level of addiction or severity of the scenario.
The third phase begins “give back” time. “We don’t want it to be community service. We want to emphasize that you’re a part of your community, and as a member of your community, you need to give back,” Campbell said.
For misdemeanor charges, 50 hours of give back time is a prerequisite prior to graduation from phase three. For convicted felonies, 50 hours of give back time are required before promotion to phase four, where they complete another 50 hours before they are eligible to graduate.
“At graduation, the court sets aside your guilty plea, and they dismiss all charges against you,” Campbell said. “Not only is the person getting the help they needed, they are getting out there in the community and establishing ties with them through give back time. They have an opportunity to move forward with the rest of their life without a felony conviction on their records, which makes them much more employable,” Campbell said.
Veterans will receive a mentor that accompanies them to court. A little bit before court begins, veterans come in to have a visit time with their mentors, but they can also schedule additional contact with mentors outside of court. The mentors stand up with the veterans in front of the judge.
“When we are able, we match services – if you have an Air Force participant, for example, hopefully the mentor standing up there with them would be Air Force as well. We can’t always make that work, but it’s a goal,” Campbell said.
Court is typically twice a month on Thursday mornings at 11. Judge Christopher J. Hughes presides over Veterans Court.
“I love presiding over the Veterans Court. Veterans Court participants have a wonderful support system. The entire committee, from the prosecutor to the defense counsel to the mental health professional, are all in the participant’s corner,” Hughes said.
“An unbelievable group of volunteer veteran mentors appear at every court session. These heroes not only provide emotional support from brothers and sisters-in-arms, they provide solid advice concerning everyday challenges the participants face. I am lucky to be associated with this group and derive far more from it than I contribute.”
“The Lee County Veterans Court is a cooperative effort. We are appreciative of the veteran mentors, and our participants benefit tremendously from their support,” Campbell added. “As part of the Lee County Veterans Court team, it is a privilege to work both with these partners and these veterans that have faithfully served our country. The Lee County Veterans Court is helping veterans recover and return as active contributing citizens to our community.”
For more information, email Campbell at trishcampbell@alacourt.