KOKOMO, Ind. – Veterans facing criminal charges could soon avoid jail time thanks to a new program. The county is setting up a veterans court, aimed to give military men and women a chance to seek treatment, rather than spend time behind bars.
Howard County Judge, Brandt Parry said the new program is a problem-solving court, much like the county's drug and mental health court. Both programs have helped veterans in the past.
“We needed to get this started and we needed to get a court up and running as soon as possible," said Parry, who serves as the judge for Howard County Superior Court II.
According to Eric Dungan, a justice outreach coordinator with the VA Northern Indiana Health Care System, the veteran hospital recently got approved to add another position like his, which will work with Howard County's new court program. He said he expected it to be up and running by January 2018.
Veterans in Cass County, Fulton County, and Miami County will also be able to take part in it. Veterans in the 26 counties the northern Indiana VA hospital serves will all have access to a veterans court with the addition of the Howard County program.
"The state wanted one veteran court in each of the state’s judicial districts in Indiana, and now we have one for District 8," said Parry.
The veterans court allows a defendant to put their trial on hold and seek treatment or diversion program, which allows the defendant to seek help to change their behavior that led to their arrest.
“The idea of the court is we find someone who has done this service for the country and perhaps because of that service has suffered from it," Parry said. "Whether that be with some mental issues or substance abuse issues, and the idea is to help them. This is more of a court and team providing support for this person. That's compared to a more combative environment where the prosecutor stares you down, saying, 'you did this, I want him to go to jail.' It's the prosecutor's office and it's the whole team coming behind the person to say we want to help you with treatment."
The team will decide the appropriate treatment and how it will measure success. The veteran could have to complete a series of goals or just one to complete the program, which would allow the charges to be dropped.
Even some violent charges could land a veteran in the new program, but everything will be on a case-by-case basis.
"You might a defendant who might have battered their mother or their father in a time when that person's having a flashback or suffering from some post-traumatic stress disorder, so we can't say every violent offense won't be allowed," said Parry.
There are more than 15,500 veterans between the four counties who get some form of health care service through the VA hospital. However, a worker at the Howard County Veterans Office said there are many more veterans living in the four counties who don't get health care there.