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VA officials say veterans court program is a success

Stephen Simpson | Military Times

JONESBORO, Ark. — Two years after 2nd Judicial District Veterans Court was instituted, the numbers show that veterans don't seem too keen on finishing the program.
 
The veterans court program was established in 2015 to help veterans, who have entered the judicial system because of factors related to their military service, assimilate back into civilian life. 
 
"It's a lot of rules and having to answer to people," Veterans Court Coordinator Lisa Couch said. "A lot of people would just rather do their jail time than be held accountable. You've got to want this program to work for you." 
 
Couch said over the past two years 21 people have entered the program. During this time, only two people have graduated giving the system a 9.5-percent success rate.
Over 15 people have been removed or left the program since then. 
 
"People will be removed for violations that they continue to have," Couch told the Jonesboro Sun. "Some will just say I don't want to do this program and just not show show up."
When this happens the veterans are put back into the judicial system. 
 
"They are some things that can be dismissed, but some things can't," Couch said. "Then they will get the sentence that was handed down, because you have to plead guilty to be a part of the program." 
 
The idea to start a veterans court was circulating in 2nd Judicial District Prosecuting Attorney Scott Ellington's mind in 2012. The district was able to secure several grants to help get the program on its feet. 
 
The program's main focus is on veterans who enlisted multiple times for a decade or more of service. The veterans court serves those who are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder or who are having trouble readjusting after serving overseas and/or in combat. 
 
People are put into the veterans court system by recommendation from the prosecutor's office. 
 
"You qualify for veterans court by wearing the uniform," Ellington said. "Then we would look at the criminal violation. We wouldn't consider murder or rape charges in veterans court." 
 
The vast majority of cases the veterans court addresses are related to substance abuse. 
 
The work began on veterans court in 2014 after Craighead County received nearly $1.4 million grant to be awarded over four years through the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. 
 
The grant allowed officials to create a collaborative system for their treatment courts to better interact with each other with less duplication of efforts and resources. It also funds the veterans court. 
 
The grant is now reaching the end of its shelf life and the numbers aren't showing much effect. 
 
"It's a fairly rigorous process," Ellington said. "Unfortunately some people that start the program find it more rigorous than they want to stick to and (they would) rather take the other alternative." 
 
Couch said the veterans court's extensive program runs some people off. 
 
"A minimum of 18 months to graduate, sometimes little more, but typically no less than that," Couch said. "There are five phases to it. They complete the phases through treatment, meetings, being drug free for so many days." 
 
Judge Tonya Alexander took over veterans court in January and said, from her short experience, she has discovered a lot of these veterans find the program difficult to deal with. 
 
"A lot of these veterans have been in war zones and they find it hard to accept civilian help," Alexander said. "Others are haunted by what they have seen." 
 
The small amounts of program entries are also a concern. 
 
"I would like to see numbers pick up," Couch said. "A lot of people don't realize the specialty court system is available to them. I think it's just getting the word out. We have picked up this year, but the numbers have been real low in the past." 
 
Even with low numbers of participants and graduates, Alexander calls the program a success. 
 
"One out of four to me is good," Alexander said. "I am not concerned about the numbers as I am about the individuals that are refusing to seek treatment. It's about helping someone. If it's just one then it's worth it to me. A lot of people want to see numbers, but we want to see results."
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