Court systems in the United States are changing and under the leadership of Chief Judge of the Circuit Court of Cook County, Timothy C. Evans, Cook County is well on its way to being a leader in changing the focus of the courts through its diversion program.
Radio talk show personality and America’s Heroes Group show host Cliff Kelley hosted a show to discuss the services provided in the Veterans Treatment Court. The show’s guests included Chief Justice Evans, Lori A. Roper, Ernesto Borges, and Brian Clauss.
The Veterans Treatment Court is a type of diversion program specifically designed to provide veterans in the criminal justice system the opportunity to receive a new, clean start.
Evans was first elected Chief Judge in September 2001 by unanimous vote of the circuit judges. He has been re-elected since then and after the most recent election in 2016 he implemented a series of groundbreaking initiatives and sweeping reforms that are both innovative and compassionate.
One of the efforts included opening a courthouse dedicated to veterans’ support.
Each week the America’s Heroes Group presents topics and information that is most often not known by veterans and people who have served this country. People often don’t fully realize the services that are available to them.
Guests on the January 26 program elaborated about the fact that many veterans have problems that sometimes land them in the court system.
According to Chief Judge Evans, rather than treating them as though their military experience may not have been a factor in their now being in the criminal justice system, they established a program.
Evans said, “We realize many times veterans have returned from Afghanistan and Iraq with PTSD and other problems that cause them and their families to have additional problems upon their return. Problems perhaps they did not have before going into the service.”
The court system recognizes that these problems exist and sometimes they are as simple as being homeless because they are without some of the services they are entitled to, and they don’t know that those services are available.
“I am here to say that we have a Veteran’s Treatment court,” said Evans.
“We don’t want any veteran who has returned from serving his country to be treated like a criminal. We realize that troubles occur, and we have services for them, services that they may not be aware of, since 2009,” he said.
Attorney Lori A. Roper is the Attorney Supervisor in charge of the Problem-Solving Courts in all six districts—this includes the Veterans Treatment Court. Roper is in the Cook County’s Public Defender’s office and has been a public servant for 24 years. It is her job to oversee the Veterans Treatment Courts throughout each one of Cook County’s court systems.
Roper explained that the talented, capable lawyers that she supervises from the Public Defender’s Office work in the courts speaking up for the veterans. Their responsibility is to convince the States’ Attorney’s office that these veterans should not be prosecuted as if they should be thrown away.
Roper said, “States Attorney Kim Foxx has attorneys on the States Attorney side of the ledger and so the judge, public defender, and state’s attorney work as a team, along with the probation department personnel. All dedicated to the veteran.”
Brian Clauss, a member of the America’s Heroes Group Advisory Board and former executive director of the John Marshall Law School Veterans Legal Clinic emphasized, “Military Service is honorable service. These are people who run towards the gunfire on our behalf. This is not some oh you came back from the service you are a victim. Bologna! The vast majority of people come back just fine, better people for being in the military. I can think of people I knew growing up and some of my relatives, who had it not been for the military, they would be in the penitentiary. I think we all know people like that.”
According to Clauss the Veterans Legal Clinic would see people who had not been properly diagnosed, which lead to a number of challenges upon discharge. Clauss said, “We would see individuals coming to us in the veteran’s clinic through the court system, frequently suffering with undiagnosed PTSD and improper characterization of their discharge.”
A “veteran with bad paper” is what this is commonly referred to as, which meant the vet was ineligible for VA benefits. “So, the people most in need come back unable to get those legal services. So where do they end up,” said Clauss.
These are most likely the veterans who are not in shelters because that is not a good place if you have PTSD. They wear out their welcome with friends and family, eventually ending up living under a viaduct.
So, the Veterans Treatment Court program enables people who are trending towards the periphery, that is, first felony or misdemeanor—to come back to being productive members of society. Veterans are made to understand it is not a “Get Out of Jail Free” card. The veterans have to be committed to their recovery.
The other great thing about Veterans’ Court is that we have actual people from the VA. We have an officer from the VA, a social worker who is actually there to help this person get his or her DD-214 to see what level of benefits they have. It is a full-service program that I am so happy to be a part of,” concluded Clauss.
Evans reiterated that the “program is no free ride––that’s absolutely true.”
These programs are typically for 24 months with a plea of guilty. Periodic drug testing is required to ensure the veterans’ compliance with the treatment program, making sure they are committed to sobriety, recovery and stability throughout the process.
When they complete the Veterans Treatment Court program their case is dismissed. There is no criminal record for this veteran, which makes him eligible for housing, employment and other benefits. Evans said, “He can get his life back together. He can embrace a second chance. This is a real second chance.”
“This Veteran Court is therapeutic, it is not punishment oriented. Our idea is to get help for people who need help. The same is true with the Restorative Justice process—it’s all about helping once again, not punishment. I would like to change the focus of our court system and these are two ways of doing this through these programs,” said Evans.