WYOMING, Mich. (WOOD) — They are programs that are proven to work: special courts for veterans whose scars from their service lead to legal troubles at home.
But limited state funding has forced these courts to turn to charity to keep their doors open.
“Our motto is leave no veteran behind, and we mean it,” said Wyoming District Court Judge Pablo Cortes.
He said the courts only work with veterans who have a service-related injury or condition that leads to criminal issues.
“That’s who we take. Then we try to put them on the right path and get them well again,” Cortes explained.
‘VETERANS HAVE EARNED THEIR OWN COURT’
Unlike normal court, veterans in the program undergo intensive probation. There are a lot of court appearances where the veteran talks through their ups and downs with the judge and other participants in the program. At times, it feels like a group therapy session in the courtroom. Participants have mandatory counseling sessions and are drug or alcohol tested twice a week.
Veterans who complete the program come out healthier and are much less likely to reoffend. The charges against them may also be reduced or even dismissed, depending on the case.
“I sincerely believe that veterans have earned their own court, because of the service to their country and the consequences their service has had on them,” said Cortes.
When 24 Hour News 8 followed Kent County veterans going through the court last summer, it was in the process of applying for another grant from the State Court Administrative Office in Lansing. The state had $750,000 to distribute among 23 courts in November. The Wyoming court asked for $177,000 but received $44,000.
“It’s not that the state was not trying to give us money, but they only had so much money in the pot and they had to split it up among different courts, so we got what we got. But it just wasn’t enough,” said Cortes.
SURVIVING OFF DONATIONS
The funding problem is taking its toll. Cortes said the program started with 13 Kent County veterans and now serves far fewer.
“As people graduated and as our funding issues cropped up, we weren’t sure we would have money, so we stopped accepting people. We got down to about six (veterans).”
With more competition among courts across the state, Wyoming and other veteran’s treatment courts have been forced to turn to donors to keep operating.
“We decided that we needed to step up for such a good cause and we unanimously voted to donate $12,000 to the court,” said Mark Moyer, commander of American Legion Post 311 in Grand Rapids.
His group is one of many that have donated to the Friends of Kent County Veteran’s Treatment Court. The group is a nonprofit organization established to help bridge the funding gap.
“This is something that I think that society owes a veteran who is struggling with legal issues that are basically part of the service that he offered to his country,” said Dan Ophoff, a trustee with the group. “What we need to do is build up the infrastructure that will allow the court to provide to every veteran that needs it.”
Judge Cortes says donations have allowed them to bring in three more veterans so far. He would like to expand to 30, but that will depending on funding.
“Except for our program director, no one else draws a salary from us. So it’s not HR costs so much, it’s just the infrastructure,” said Cortes.
A lot of the staff donates their time and the City of Wyoming donates the use of the court space. But there are still significant costs. The veterans often need help with transportation, counseling sessions and drug tests.
“You have 15 to 30 guys, each testing twice a week. That’s a lot of drug tests,” Cortes explained.
A LONG-TERM SOLUTION?
“I think, while they are expensive, we should all be reminding the legislature that they are doing a smart thing by investing in these treatment courts,” said Michigan Supreme Court Justice Bridget Mary McCormack. “They get a good return on their investment. The folks who make it through these treatment courts, again, not just the veterans treatment courts but all of our sobriety courts, are two or three times less likely to reoffend.”
McCormack is a big supporter of veteran’s treatment courts.
“We feel like we have a moral duty to provide these veterans the services they need.”
But she admits funding can be difficult.
“How we make sure we can not only continue to serve the 25 veterans treatment courts we have around the state, but even grow that number so that we really can be confident that any veteran who needs this kind of program is able to get it in our courts, is something we think a lot about,” said McCormack.
Many courts are partnering with local groups and nonprofits to sustain and expand services to veterans. The question now is if operating on charity is a long-term solution.
“I think that there’s a comradery between veterans, esprit de corps, and when they see a chance to help other veterans they give until it hurts,” said Cortes. “As long as there’s veterans out there, I think we are sustainable”.
But Ophoff and others are worried.
“I know the American Legion and the folks in Kent County are making sure that legislators know that this is something that is an important part of what we think we owe veterans,” he said.
In order to avoid ethical conflicts, the court itself cannot accept donations. Those wishing to donate should send their donation to:
The Friends of Kent County Veterans Treatment Court (FKCVTC), c/o Dan Ophoff P.O. Box 3500 Grand Rapids, MI 49501