Charleston County has a specialized new court aimed to help struggling veterans who have committed nonviolent crimes.
The goal? To close the revolving door of the criminal justice system for veterans by giving them treatment.
"This is a win for veterans, as well as the community at large," 9th Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson said. "Anytime we can get anyone out of the criminal justice system, the community is safer for it. Veterans have sacrificed so much for us, and we want to give them the help they need to again become productive citizens."
Earlier this month, the state Supreme Court created a new Charleston County Veterans Court that is expected to start in about a month. It will launch with five veterans currently enrolled in Drug Court and ultimately could serve a few dozen veterans a year with an emphasis on their treatment and recovery, said Associate Probate Judge Peter Kouten, who will preside over it.
The idea works similar to Drug Court, which tries to rehabilitate nonviolent offenders struggling with substance abuse.
Not only will Veterans Court serve military veterans, including reservists and members of the National Guard, but its program also will be tailored to their training, said Probate Court Judge Irv Condon.
"One difference is the court will use the military terminology. So instead of '4 p.m.,' it will be '1600,'" Condon said. "You recognize and thank them for their service."
Kouten said he has spent about a year laying the groundwork to develop training manuals and polices for those involved. The court will receive help from the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center and other groups.
Charleston is the fifth county in South Carolina with such a court. The county had a veterans program within its drug court before, but it gradually faded after its launch in 2011.
Wilson has supported the effort to reboot it.
"This time around, we have a judge devoted to treating veterans who is a veteran himself," she said. "That will be a big step towards the success of the program. I’ve felt strongly for quite some time that veterans needed specialty treatment. Specialized treatment is critical to those who have become justice involved remaining crime and drug free."
She noted research shows how soldiers' combat skills and of constant battle readiness can disrupt their re-entry to civilian life.
"The Walter Reed Army Institute has coined the term 'battlemind' to identify the skills that our soldiers have to obtain to survive," she said. "Because of their training, peer support and mentoring is likely to be especially effective with veterans helping veterans."
The first Veterans Courts took root in Buffalo, N.Y., in 2008, according to the National Center for State Courts. They since have expanded across the country, including in both Savannah and Fayetteville, N.C.
Condon said the presence of the VA Medical Center will help make the court effective. The center and other nonprofits will help provide counseling and support to veterans going through the court.
The goal is to treat veterans and change their behavior, not to punish them, Condon said. "We do anticipate relapse and try to deal with relapses through counseling and positive activities," he said.
Kouten said the goal of the court goes beyond trying to end veterans' cycle of substance abuse and related nonviolent crime.
For those who graduate from the court, Kouten said, "The priceless component is he has his life back. He wakes up in the morning and doesn’t have to do drugs and drink. He gets his family back and his family gets him back, too. That’s the exciting part of it.”