- By Denise G. Callahan Staff Writer
The new Veterans Treatment Court in Butler County is the latest court to serve a specific set of offenders who might be fragile or need more care to be productive participants in society.
The court has been in operation a little over a year and recently was officially certified as a specialty court by the Ohio Supreme Court. Butler County Common Pleas Judge Michael A. Oster, Jr. presides over the court.
The goal is to get veterans clean of addictions and help them cope with debilitating conditions like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder that might have contributed to their breaking felony laws in the county.
“The idea is to get them back where they were, which is … where they honorably served our country,” Oster told this news organization. “We want to get them back to that sense of pride and what they have done and who they truly are.”
Assignment to the specialty court as part of probation is made by the sentencing judge in the felony division who had the veteran’s case originally. The veterans court is designed to break down barriers such as unemployment or under employment, homelessness, drug problems and other issues that may have contributed to veterans ending up on the wrong side of the law.
The veterans court is one of five certified specialty courts in the county, including the felony drug, felony mental health and felony non-support courts, and the newest, the Family Treatment Drug Court that just received its final certification from the high court.
The VTC meets every Monday. Recently, seven of the 14 participants met with Oster and his team — made up of court staff, a representative of the Veterans Service Commission, the probation office and Jen Wolfe, a veterans justice outreach specialist with the VA — to check in on their progress in the program.
One of the veterans apparently had a setback in his program and missed some meetings, and Wolfe told him in no uncertain terms that he needs to stay the course.
“I think that everyone in this room is vulnerable to falling back into poor coping strategies, unhealthy choices. I don’t think it’s exclusive to you and I don’t think it’s something you need to beat yourself up about…,” she said. “When you are practicing humility, it is understanding that you’re fragile and just because you did a few months in a program and you feel like you’ve got everything together and you’ve got this, that’s the worst place to be because that’s the first place where you’ll make the worst decisions you can make.”
Several of the veterans got pats on the back from Oster, like William Glover, who is almost ready to move into the next phase — there are four phases in VTC — because he has been “putting one foot in the front of the other” after going “sideways” for a while, according to Oster.
“I’m happy with how it’s going so I’d like to give you a little bit of incentive,” Oster told the Army veteran. “I’m going to see you in two weeks on the fifth and if everything is good, you’re still putting one foot in front of the other, we’re going to phase you up sometime in February.”
When “phasing up” in improvement, the veterans write a letter about their experience in the program. One veteran, who asked not to be identified, read an excerpt from his letter saying the court made him accountable and helped him see there is a better way to live.
“Staying clean is a full time job, I thought I was happy when I was using back then, but it was miserable,” the veteran read from his assignment. “I know because when I compare my new life and there is no comparison. It took getting in trouble and losing everything to realize it.”
The veteran got a round of applause from his peers and the court and fist pumps when he returned to his seat in the jury box.
Oster said the court is hoping to be able to serve as many veterans as possible, and the sheriff and the Veterans Administration have teamed up so they can better identify that someone is a veteran when they are arrested. He said sometimes veterans are too embarrassed by their crime to admit they are a veteran. He expects their numbers to at least double in the future.
The veterans court is available to all veterans who have committed crimes in the county, but Oster said that doesn’t necessarily mean every veteran will qualify.
“One of the things that every judge hates is when our discretion is taken away, so we’re pretty liberal about who could be accepted as far as at least bringing somebody up and at least talking about them in our staffings,” he said. “But when you are starting to look at violent offenders, people who have committed high level felonies or have a serious criminal background, they really stand a slim to none chance of being admitted into the program.”
When the county was first booting up the new docket Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor was pleased to hear it, because the VTCs have had a great deal of success. The recidivism rate is what is key in any court, and she said the VTCs appear to have that issue in check.
“The long-term effect is what is important, where are they a year later, where are they two years later, is there a rate of recidivism…,” O’Connor said. “My understanding is the veterans courts have the lowest rate of recidivism amongst their population. I think it is a very worthwhile endeavor.”
The court hasn’t had any graduations from the program yet, it is still too new, but Oster said he is certain there will be some this year.
The other new specialty court, the family drug court, was resurrected last August — a loss in federal funding in 2012 doomed the program at that time — to help combat the raging opiate epidemic.
Much like Oster, Butler County Juvenile Magistrate Pat Wilkerson presides over that court with an understanding ear.
“For some of those clients, the only real encouragement they have comes from us,” Wilkerson told this news organization. “A lot of them don’t have much of a support network. A lot of them have worn out their close relationships through drug use.”
She and her team work with parents who have lost their children because of drug addictions. She said they are up to 10 clients now. Two more are coming onto the docket, and three more are being considered. A second docket will be added next month.
Those parents meet with Wilkerson weekly and the court, like Oster’s team, knows everything that is going on their lives, the good things and the bad. Her coordinator, Jolynn Hurwitz, is connected enough to their lives that she has been known to give them rides to appointments when they have no other transportation.
Wolfe, who is on the VTC team as an advocate for the veterans, said the specialty dockets allow for a special bond to form that facilitates healing.
“Our role as a treatment team is to wrap these veterans in bubble wrap,” Wolfe said. “We wrap all these services around them because they’re fragile. They have mental health disorders, they have substance abuse disorders, so you wrap all these services around them and you stay with them long enough to then let them get back out on their own.”