SALISBURY — Justan Mounts marveled at what he saw.
Mounts, director of Rowan County Veterans Services, was seated inside the Harnett County Courthouse. He was there to observe a Veterans Treatment Court – a special diversion program designed to help military veterans who have committed minor crimes get the mental health and treatment services they need but could not. not receive otherwise.
The purpose of non-traditional court is to prevent veterans, especially those who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder or other cognitive impairment as a result of their service, from committing another crime in the future.
“I was blown away,” Mounts said.
Mounts and others are currently laying the groundwork to establish a similar program in Rowan County. Earlier this month, the Rowan County Board of Commissioners passed a resolution supporting the effort.
Mounts said the resolution is “one of the very serious first steps towards a commitment to see where we can go with this.” However, he also acknowledged that there is a lot of work to be done before the tribunal materializes.
Commissioners also passed a budget for the 2022-23 fiscal year that includes sufficient funding to create a part-time position in full-time Veterans Services, in part to help efforts to establish a Veterans Affairs Tribunal. Veterans.
Mounts and others began to seriously discuss the idea of a veterans treatment court in 2020, but the pandemic put a pause on those conversations. With the justice system no longer functioning under the crush of COVID-19, Mounts is making a renewed and invigorated push.
The nation’s first drug treatment court specifically for veterans was opened in Buffalo, New York, in 2008. Harnett County launched the first veterans treatment court in North Carolina nearly 100 years ago. nine years. There are now similar programs in Buncombe, Catawba, Cumberland and Forsyth counties.
Although each Veterans Treatment Court takes a slightly unique approach, the overarching goal is to prevent veterans from re-offending.
Zane Campbell, director of the Harnett County Veterans Treatment Court, said their program achieves this by focusing on the root causes of why a veteran may have committed a crime.
“By addressing those needs, those mental health issues, and providing therapy for the traumatic events that took place, it eliminates drug and alcohol use for most veterans,” Campbell said. “You have some that come up, but for the most part it gets rid of it. They get treatment, they get therapy and they continue down that path and it leads to a life without recurrence.
This approach has paid off. The program’s recidivism rate, the percentage of program graduates who commit another crime, is approximately 5%.
Every veteran who enters the Harnett County program begins by accepting responsibility for their crime, Campbell said. The program only accepts people who have committed low-level misdemeanors or crimes, usually those involving drugs or alcohol.
The program has five phases, which can last between 18 and 24 months. Regular court appearances, drug tests and treatment sessions are necessary. At the end of the program, Campbell said a veteran can receive a reduced sentence or have their case dismissed.
Harnett County is a regional court, which means it accepts veterans from different parts of eastern North Carolina. There are currently about two dozen veterans in the program. Before COVID, Campbell said the program averaged about 40 people at any given time.
Mounts said he didn’t want to “reinvent the wheel” by creating a Veterans Treatment Court in Rowan County. Instead, he plans to bring together the “massive amount” of resources that already exist in the region. Mounts said the Salisbury VA Medical Center is eager to get involved and also plans to partner with the Veterans Benefits Administration regional office in Winston-Salem.
“We’re in a phenomenal position,” Mounts said.
Mounts said the court will work to meet all of a veteran’s needs, whether it’s therapy, medication, housing, food or employment.
The Veterans Treatment Court will require membership from a number of community partners, from courthouse officials such as the District Attorney and Chief District Court Judge to local veterans organizations. Ideally, a treatment court coordinator would oversee the program.
Mounts said the process of establishing a veterans treatment court typically takes at least a year. The first step is to involve local officials, then to receive state approval and secure funding. The majority of program funding will likely come from grants.
Undeterred by the amount of effort or time it will take, Mounts said it would be worth it to help someone who has served their country get their life back on track.
“There are proven ways to do these things. Now you’ve taken someone who committed a crime and now they’ll never commit another crime and they’re in a good place,” Mounts said. “Their life is at a place where they are no longer in survival mode.”