Court to give veterans a second chance

Military personnel often must put their families and careers on hold when they place their lives on the line.

So if anyone deserves a second chance in court, it should be a veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder suffering from drug addiction or mental health problems.

That premise motivated the yearlong development of a problem-solving court for former military personnel in Bartholomew County.

After 11 months of preparation, the new Veterans Court is in the final stage of receiving provisional certification through the Indiana Judicial Center, Bartholomew Superior Court 1 Judge Jim Worton said.

If completed as expected by the end of this year, he will begin presiding over the new court in mid-January, the judge said.

During the first five months of this year, 58 veterans were booked into the Bartholomew County Jail, while 34 others were placed on probation, Worton said.

Under state guidelines, Bartholomew County’s Veterans Court can serve no more than 25 participants at any given time, Worton said.

The intensive voluntary program consists of several phases involving treatment and other standards that must be met in order to graduate after 18 months, according to a news release from Worton’s court.

Veterans who are accepted by a committee into the program — designed primarily for nonviolent, first-time offenders — also might receive employment and housing assistance, Worton said.

In addition, each will be assigned a mentor, who will be available to help the veteran stay on course in restoring a productive purpose in life, Worton said.

But the judge emphasized Veterans Court, which will be coordinated by Bartholomew County Chief Probation Officer Brad Barnes, is not a “get-out-of-jail” card for anyone.

Veterans charged with major felonies, serious violent offenses or sex offenses will not be eligible, the judge and former Columbus police chief emphasized.

“We’ll still hold them accountable for their actions,” Worton said. “But the ultimate goal is to rebuild and restore the lives for those veterans suffering from service-related issues.”

While details are being worked out, Veterans Court likely will be convened weekly or every other week, Worton said.

An emphasis will be placed on evidence-based programming, which utilizes approaches and interventions that have been scientifically tested in controlled studies and proved effective in reducing offender risk and subsequent recidivism, the judge said.

“We simply don’t want to provide treatment for its own sake,” Worton said. “We want assurances that it will work.”

In recent years, evidence-based programming has been used extensively for defendants accused of committing felony crimes in Bartholomew County.

Early this year, the Indiana General Assembly approved legislation and funding in the budget bill to help formally expand veterans treatment courts. That means Bartholomew County taxpayers will not be required to fund initial costs, the judge said.

Further refinements to the program may soon be made. The Military Veterans Coalition of Indiana and other partnering veterans groups are proposing legislation designed to help Veteran Treatment Courts that include:

A Veterans Scratch Card through the Hoosier Lottery that will raise money to provide free legal advice and counseling for participants.

The creation of an Indiana veteran recovery program that will allow reimbursement for treatment and services from third parties.

Local attorney Laura Raiman will be the public defender assigned to represent the program participants who require court-appointed counsel, the release stated.

Current probation officers in regular court will serve as program case workers in Veterans Court, Worton said.

Since the 2008 founding of the first Veterans Court in Buffalo, New York, 220 programs have been established nationwide that serve about 11,000 veterans, The Associated Press reported.

An estimated 5,740 veterans reside in Bartholomew County.

Fifteen of Indiana’s 92 counties currently have a Veterans Court, while three others — including Bartholomew — have one under development, Worton said.

Who's involved?

Each applicant for the Veterans Court being established in Columbus must be screened, evaluated and approved by a committee headed by Bartholomew Superior Court 1 Judge Jim Worton. Others serving on the committee will be:

  • Deputy Prosecutor Greg Long
  • Columbus attorney Alex Whitted
  • Bartholomew County Sheriff Matt Myers
  • Columbus Police Chief Jon Rohde

Committee members also will be chosen at a later date to represent various organizations such as:

  • The Bartholomew County Bar Association
  • Centerstone Behavioral Health
  • Department of Veterans Affairs

Community members who have been involved in the development of the Veterans Problem Solving Court since January include:

  • Rick Caldwell
  • James Pridgen
  • Dan Hillen
  • Rob Gaskill
  • Norm Curry

Source: Bartholomew Superior Court 1 Judge Jim Worton

Volunteer mentors needed

One vital part of  the Veterans Court now being developed will be the assignment of a mentor who has military experience, Bartholomew Superior Court 1 Judge James Worton said.  

Volunteer mentors are being recruited who will serve as a go-to person in times of need, as well as assist those in Veterans Court through necessary steps in the 18-month program, Worton said.

Veterans interested in serving as mentors may contact either Veterans Court Coordinator Brad Barnes at 812-379-1640 or Worton’s staff at 812-379-1623.  

Author photo
Mark Webber is a reporter for The Republic. He can be reached at mwebber@therepublic.com or 812-379-5636.