WYOMING, Mich. (WOOD) — Veterans treatment courts are among Michigan’s network of specialty courts that treat people who are mentally ill, battling addiction or homeless. In addition to adjudicating their crimes, the courts aim to get them the help they need.
The newest of those 23 veterans’ courts is at Wyoming District Court, where it typically operates twice a month. It deals with those who have served and then find themselves in trouble with misdemeanors and low-level felonies — mostly related to drugs, alcohol or assaultive crimes short of attempted murder.
If the vets follow the program, they can have their record sealed and go on to live without the stigma of a criminal record.
“This court is a very strong reminder that the rules of engagement at home are not the same as elsewhere,” said Terry Hall, a 47-year-old veteran who says he spent 21 years in the U.S. Army.
After leaving the service, Hall found himself divorced, drinking, homeless and battling post-traumatic stress. Finally, he was arrested for disorderly conduct and faced life with a criminal record.
“I’m not a criminal,” he said. “It was a bad night.”
STATE SUPREME COURT JUSTICE: PROGRAM ISN’T A ‘PASS’
Hall was able to enroll in the veterans’ court program. For the last two years, he has stuck to the rules as set forth by the statewide program overseen by Michigan Supreme Court Justice Joan Larsen.
“The requirements are quite rigorous in order to graduate,” Larsen told 24 Hour News 8 Tuesday. “So I certainly don’t think it’s a pass.”
If program participants offend again, all bets are off.
“People who work the program are two to three times less likely to re-offend than similarly situated people who don’t go through the program,” Larsen said.
STRUGGLING TO TRANSITION TO CIVILIAN LIFE
There are regional vets’ courts in Ionia and Allegan counties. Wyoming District Court Judge Pablo Cortes spearheaded the effort to bring a program in Kent County more than a year ago.
He said veterans can be challenged adapting to civilian life.
“That’s the biggest problem. They’re in uniform and they walk around and people see them in the uniforms and people look at them and thank them and treat them a certain way, and all of a sudden it gets turned off and now they’re not that person anymore,” Cortes said.
Larsen said one of the challenges is getting veterans to identify their service when they enter the criminal justice system.
“We’re not ones to reach out and say, ‘Yeah, help me. I’m broken,’” Hall, the Army veteran, explained.
‘IT’S MADE MY LIFE BETTER’
Larsen said the specialty courts, including the vets’ courts, have been successful.
“People who come into the program generally come into the program with a 34 percent unemployment rate — that’s huge. People who successfully complete the program cut that rate in half,” Larsen said.
The court is more informal that the standard court. Vets support each other as mentors, sponsors and often speak up during the hearings to add advice or information.
“It’s actually made my life better than it was before I got in trouble,” Hall said. “I don’t necessarily recommend getting arrested and tased by the cops in order to get better.”
>>Online: Michigan Veterans Treatment Court
Juan Rodriguez, an Army veteran who says he spent nine years in the service including time in the infantry and in Iraq, said the program provided him the incentive he needed to get help.
“I would be in jail” if not for the program Rodriguez said. “I bet 85 percent of us would be in jail.”
“We see things different than other people. A lot of your neighbors don’t understand you, unfortunately. A lot of people are really afraid of combat veterans, especially if they’ve been drinking,” Hall said. “This is an opportunity to say, ‘Hey look, soldier, you screwed up. That’s not how we act here. You’re not in the military. You’re not overseas. You’re home now.'”
The Michigan Supreme Court said Tuesday that another veterans’ treatment court is slated to open this fall in Kalamazoo. The result, they say, is that Michigan has the most vets’ courts in the nation.
***CORRECTION: The original version of this story incorrectly stated the veteran’s court meets once a month; the current story reflects the bi-weekly status of court. ***