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COLUMBIA, S.C. — When a knee injury left him on disability and reliant on pain medication, Army veteran Clarence Johnson hit a wall. Out of his prescription drugs, the New York City native was arrested during a visit to South Carolina last year after buying narcotics on the street.
Johnson was facing up to two years in jail.
But under a new program for veterans facing some nonviolent crimes, Johnson was able to stay out of jail — and get off drugs, he hopes, for good.
Because of his military service — four years each in the Army and National Guard — Johnson, 55, was eligible for something called a veterans treatment court. They are set up like drug courts, which offer people facing nonviolent drug offenses a chance to stay out of jail as long as they comply with court-ordered attendance at rehab and meetings. The veterans courts give people with military service ways to get and stay connected with resources available through the Veterans Administration, like addiction treatment and counseling.
Through weekly meetings with attorneys, counselors and a veteran mentor, participants get the encouragement that hopefully will help them both stay clean and keep from breaking the law again.
"This time, it seemed like my chance to really clean my act up," said Johnson, who was among 18 men who were the first graduates of Richland County's veterans court, the first in South Carolina. "It changed my life."
The concept was born in 2007 in a Buffalo, N.Y., courtroom, when a Vietnam veteran appeared in a session of Judge Robert Russell's mental health court, a special system set up in many states to get help for accused criminals with mental health issues. Downtrodden and slouched over, the man wasn't making much progress with his court-ordered treatments. So Russell had two colleagues who were also veterans talk with him about his past, his service, and ways he could improve himself and graduate the program.
"All of a sudden this veteran comes back into court ... and he's looking at me directly in the eye," Russell said.
That interaction with the two other veterans made Russell wonder: Would he better be able to reach veterans who had gone astray if they had more interaction with and encouragement from other people who understood that military background firsthand?
Over the next year, Russell regularly met with a team that included representatives from various veteran-focused groups, like the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the American Legion and the Veterans Administration, getting their input on the best ways to keep former service members as productive members of society. After getting their buy-in for a veterans-only court, Russell started holding sessions in his Buffalo courtroom, piggybacking off existing resources and staff he already used for mental health court and another alternative sentencing court for minor drug crime offenders.
Since its first year 2008, about 90 people have graduated from Russell's program, which can take veterans up to two years to complete. After graduation, mentors follow up with participants and make sure they're staying clean, employed and, most of all, on the correct side of the law. An alumni association also schedules regular events.
The courts are gradually spreading to other jurisdictions, with nearly 100 veterans courts now in 27 states and at least 100 more planned, according to Chris Deutsch of Justice for Vets, a group that advocates for the programs nationwide.
Getting someone set up in the program can be as simple as asking if they've served, Deutsch said. Only veterans with a clinical diagnosis of a substance abuse or a mental health disorder are eligible — and that disorder doesn't even have to be directly linked to a service-related injury or trauma.
"The goal of the court is still to get them connected to treatment," Deutsch says. "Nobody is served by cycling that person through."
And because there are already drug and mental health counseling resources available to veterans through the VA, it doesn't cost much to set up the courts. Deutsch said the only problem comes because many veterans may think they're ineligible and don't take advantage of it.
"It's really an economy of resources to have them in the same place at the same time," Deutsch said. "It's a place that it was OK to admit, ‘I have PTSD,' or, ‘I'm abusing substances because I can't sleep at night.'"
In the effort's early days, Deutsch said, advocates fielded criticism that the programs were unfairly treating veterans more delicately than other offenders. But that opposition has tapered as the movement has gained popularity.
"Anything that moves the ball down field in terms of our justice system taking into account those types of issues — drug abuse, mental health disorder, what is the root of the crime — is important," he said.
There have been issues. Deutsch said officials in one state initially tried to divert all veterans onto a separate court docket, regardless of the charges they faced. And some jurisdictions have rejected veterans who had a criminal record before they joined the military. Other programs have shut down because officials either didn't have enough money to fund the programs or struggled to find veterans to participate.
In South Carolina, Richland County prosecutor Dan Johnson — a veteran himself — said there are more than 400,000 veterans, with nearly one-tenth of those in Richland and Kershaw counties, the areas Johnson serves. As such, the prosecutor said he wanted to set up his own court to help out the high number of struggling veterans coming through his courtrooms, many of them young men facing a number of relatively low-level drug offenses.
Johnson, who is a National Guard judge advocate general and served in Iraq, taking care of America's veterans doesn't stop once they leave military service. He said he vividly remembered his struggle to re-adjust after returning from Iraq.
"Part of the warrior ethos is that you never leave a fallen comrade behind. And I think that's a continuing duty that we all have," he said.
For Clarence Johnson, one of those first 18 graduates from the Richland County program, rediscovering that soldier mentality is what got him through veterans court — and what he hopes will keep him out of jail again.
"If you're a disciplined soldier, your format is to complete the mission," he said. "People paid with their lives for us to live the way we do in America. There's a price for everything. This freedom didn't come easy."