Veterans Treatment Court a special option in the criminal justice system

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VIETNAM VETERAN AND host of America’s Heroes Group, Cliff Kelley (left) with Lori A. Roper, Attorney Supervisor for the Cook County Public Defender’s office. Roper was a guest on the December 22, 2018 talk show at the WVON 1690 studios.

A little-known resource for veterans facing criminal charges is in place in Chicago and surrounding communities. In Chicago, the Veterans Treatment Court was established at the Leighton Criminal Courts building at 26th and California in January 2009. The Veterans Treatment Court (VTC) is a special option in the criminal justice system for veterans. VTC identifies and segregates United States veterans who have been arrested in Cook County and charged with non-violent felony and misdemeanor offenses.

Lori A. Roper is the Attorney Supervisor in charge of Veterans Treatment Court for the Law Office of the Cook County Public Defender. The attorneys she supervises are appointed to represent the vets. The ratio of Assistant Public Defenders to veterans is 1 to 30, she notes. Says Roper, Chief Judge Timothy Evans deserves much credit for the existence of VTC.  “Chief Judge Timothy Evans is responsible for the program and for its success. It was Judge Evans who acknowledged the need for such a court and initiated and opened the court.”

Currently there are Veterans Courts at 26th St., Markham, Bridgeview, Skokie, Rolling Meadows and Maywood. The courts at all locations were all active within a two-year period starting in 2009.

Within the Veterans Treatment Court there operates a 24-month Veterans Court Probation program. The program facilitates veteran access to comprehensive medical, substance abuse, mental health treatment and social services. It attempts to do so in an environment that will assist them in overcoming issues of drug dependence, mental illness, homelessness, and unemployment.

The program is designed to improve behavioral health, promote public safety and reduce recidivism.

Important features of the Veterans Treatment Court include a dedicated court call, whereby a court is dedicated specifically to the veteran population; frequent court appearances and judicial engagement; a team approach to staffing and court sessions; intensive case management and supervision; frequent random drug and alcohol testing; access to legal assistance; referrals to volunteer service organizations, and mentorship.

The first goal of Veterans Treatment Court is to identify potential participants at the earliest point of involvement in the criminal justice system. After a participant is identified, the next goal is to determine the person’s eligibility for admission to Veterans Treatment Court. Intake procedures further identify risk and needs factors, and develop an individual   medical, psychosocial and substance abuse treatment case management plan.

After admission to VTC, the ultimate goal is to connect the veteran with comprehensive services offered by the Veterans Administration, community treatment providers, and veterans’ service organizations. Such steps help him or her to achieve a more stable, fulfilling and productive life, according to excerpts from the Circuit Court of Cook County Veterans Treatment Court Participant Handbook.

Veterans must have an honorable discharge to avail themselves of services from the VA.  However, if a veteran has something less than honorable, he or she can receive services through TASC (Treatment Alternatives for Safe Communities).

Veterans who are accepted into Veterans Court are usually referred by an Assistant States’ Attorney in Central Bond Court. However, a vet may be referred after being assigned to a trial court room. At this time, Assistant Public Defenders who have been appointed to the case, may find out that their client is a veteran. The Assistant Public Defender can ask for an order from the court to refer the veteran for screening to the Veterans Court.

A veteran must plead guilty to their case in order to get into Vet Court. Once assigned there, the vet is assessed to determine what services are needed. The vets also have the benefit of a VJO (Veterans Justice Outreach) worker who helps the veteran get involved with services with the VA.

At the Leighton Criminal Court House there are 36 veterans participating in VTC.

Upon successful completion of the 24-month program, there is a graduation ceremony and the case is completely dismissed, with no felony conviction. In 2016 the total number of admissions to VTC was 519. The program boasted a graduation rate of 61 percent that year.

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