Veterans court begins hearing cases

Bartholomew County’s first Veterans Court is hearing cases.

The program is for former military personnel, including those who may have deployed to combat multiple times and experienced traumatic events that take a heavy toll on their lives, the Indiana Judicial Center explained on its website. The center is sponsoring the Veterans Court program.

“They deserve a second chance to retake control of their futures and rebuild their lives,” said Bartholomew Superior Court 1 Judge Jim Worton, who presides over the new court.

The program is considered a problem-solving approach that addresses causes leading to veterans being involved in low-level criminal behavior possibly caused by post-traumatic stress, brain trauma, anxiety, depression, chemical dependency, unemployment and homelessness.

“When our veterans sign the dotted line to serve their country, they are signing a blank check that could include the sacrifice of their lives,” Worton said. “Not only is this a chance to rebuild their lives, but it’s a way for our community to give something back to them for the sacrifice they gave to us.”

But not all cases involving veterans will be steered into the new court, Worton said.

Veterans charged with major felonies, serious violent offenses or sex offenses, as well as those who had a criminal history prior to their enlistment, are not accepted into veterans court, the judge said.

In three of the initial four cases Worton heard when the court first convened, two dealt with drunken driving and a third was for a probation violation.

In the fourth case, a veteran charged with domestic battery, criminal confinement, interference with the reporting of a crime and criminal mischief was allowed to plead guilty to battery as a Level 6 felony.

“We had one participant who was going to be off probation shortly, but told us that he needs the treatment available in our 12- to 18- month program,” Worton said.

Successful participants may be able to expunge convictions from their record, as well as receive housing and employment assistance, Worton said. However, some local residents have claimed the program amounts to a get-out-of-jail-free card, Worton told the Bartholomew County Commissioners on Monday.

Not so, the judge said.

Participants must agree to stringent conditions, Worton said, that often exceed those required of conventional defendants that include:

  • Admitting guilt.
  • Undergoing an extensive examination prior to being admitted into the program.
  • Going to the Bartholomew County Courthouse weekly to ensure compliance.
  • Undergoing regular risk assessments from their case managers, mental health professionals and the Veterans Administration.
  • Complying with all recommended therapies and medical appointments, or face possible jail time and other punitive measures.

For Bartholomew County commissioner Larry Kleinhenz, the most important program component is that there is no effort to escape responsibility, he said.

“I like they have to admit to their wrongdoing. But then there’s an extra effort to help them get back on track,” Kleinhenz said. “Who can’t be supportive of that?”

In exchange for complying with stringent conditions, defendants receive support from a mentor who is also a veteran, as well as individualized treatment based on case manager assessments.

During each veterans court session, a Veterans Administration representative is also present with an online computer that enables them to streamline the process of obtaining needed services.

In addition, time is allowed at the end of each session for the participant to talk with other veterans who regularly attend to offer their support, Worton said.

While Veterans Court is held in Worton’s courtroom on the second and fourth Thursdays of every month, Superior Court 1 still hears all of the same types of cases that it has always been assigned.

The court can serve no more than 25 participants at any given time, Worton said. An estimated 5,740 veterans reside in Bartholomew County.

In early 2015, the Indiana General Assembly approved legislation and funding to help formally expand veterans’ treatment courts. Bartholomew County Chief Probation Officer Brad Barnes oversees the program, while Rick Caldwell coordinates recruiting mentors.

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.

Who pays?

A non-reverting fund to fund Veterans Court was approved by the Bartholomew County Commissioners on Monday.  It will be used to hold money obtained from program participants.   

Those fees will be collected only for operating costs, such as obtaining personnel and materials, according to presiding Judge Jim Worton.

In all cases, a traditional $183 in court fees will be assessed. After that, charges are based on the extent of the crime.

For misdemeanor charges, there’s a $50 initial fee and a $50 administrative fee, as well as $20 per month charge during the 12- to 18-month program, Worton said. 

When the case is a felony, it’s $100 initially, $100 for administrative purposes and $30 per month. 

The fund will also hold money from grants that are now anticipated after the local program was certified in December by the Indiana Judicial Center, Worton said.   

Most provided services are available through the Veterans Administration.  Those not eligible for VA benefits may be able to tap into grant-funded resources in order to receive treatment through either Centerstone, a community-based behavioral health care organization, or Valle Vista Health System in Greenwood, Worton said.   

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