Bringing a Veterans Treatment Court to Sedgwick County

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SEDGWICK COUNTY, Kan. (KSNW) – There’s a growing push to develop a court in Sedgwick County that would specifically serve veterans and the challenges they can face in the legal system.

A veterans treatment court is a specialized court system for veterans who were arrested for non-violent misdemeanor crimes. The goal is to rehabilitate them back into society in a process specific to the veteran experience. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, more than two out of 10 veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder also struggle with addiction. This can lead to unemployment, homelessness and arrests.

District Judge Tim McCarthy with a VTC graduate. (Courtesy: Johnson County Kansas government)

Johnson County is home to Kansas’ only veterans treatment court (VTC). The program has successfully integrated 41 veterans back into the community since its establishment in 2016.

District Judge Tim McCarthy presides over the court in Johnson County. He says the program started with zero funding. McCarthy and others in the criminal justice system volunteered their time and services. Later, the court received a grant of $300,000, which lasted three years.

What about Sedgwick County?

Sedgwick County is one of 12 Kansas jurisdictions interested in starting a VTC. Between an aging veteran population, an active military base and the Robert J. Dole VA Medical Center, some say the fit is natural.

The idea has significant support, including Navy veteran Keith Humphrey, retired Kansas Supreme Court Chief Justice Lawton Nuss and current Kansas Supreme Court Chief Justice Marla Luckert.

Humphrey, a Navy veteran, got sober while in the military.

“Because of my own recovery, I thought what better thing for a veteran that basically loses the support system of the active-duty military,” he said. “They come back and sometimes bring back with them traumatic, post-traumatic stress, other mental issues or even a traumatic brain injury that is basically undiagnosed.”

He says those conditions can make it difficult for veterans to adjust to regular life after the structure of military life. 

“Sometimes there’s an adjustment period, that adjustment period can sometimes conflict with the civilian world,” Humphrey said.

The Kansas Supreme Court has supported the growth of specialty courts of all types for some time, according to Luckert. In addition, she played a role in a webinar last year for those counties interested in learning about resources to get a VTC started.

“This is not an easy alternative to jail or probation,” Luckert said. “It is rigorous, which also adds to why it is successful.”

In a March 3 phone call with KSN, District Judge Jeffrey Goering said the concept is in the study phase here in Sedgwick County. If the concept is set up, the county needs to know how many people could be involved.

Goering estimates that if the target population would be 15 veterans or less to start, there is a possibility of adding the specialty court to an existing judge’s docket. However, if the VTC has the same number of people on the docket as the drug court in the county, the state would have to appoint judges in Sedgwick County to accommodate.

“I think it would be a good fit for Sedgwick County,” Goering said.

Retired District Chief Judge Jim Fleetwood has offered to volunteer his services to the court, but he notes the process requires much more than just a judge. The system would involve buy-in from multiple entities, including the Sedgwick County Sheriff’s Office, the VA Hospital, attorneys who can work with veterans, and others within the court system.

“The Robert J. Dole VA is willing to partner with any local courts interested in starting a VTC by offering medical care, mental health and substance abuse treatment options, and on-going intensive case management for Veterans eligible for VA health care,” a spokesperson for the VA told KSN in an email.

Program outcomes

According to Justice for Vets, there are 700,000 veterans in the criminal justice system right now.

The veterans-only courtroom is an alternative to jail time and gives offenders the chance to receive treatment specific to their veteran experience. VTCs often require drug and alcohol screenings and court appearances throughout the veteran’s time in the program to show their progress.

Offenders are paired with mentor veterans who help guide them through the legal process and eventually to graduation.

As an additional perk, the Johnson County VTC offers rewards along the way, such as gift cards or military apparel.

Veterans spend approximately 12-18 months in the program. If they graduate, the judge dismisses the criminal charge against them. Staying out of jail also gives the veterans time to work on bettering their situation.

Of the 41 veterans graduating from the Johnson County VTC, none have re-offended.

Other benefits

“It costs about $20,000 to $30,000 a year to incarcerate someone,” Nuss said. “Johnson County figures it spends about $2,500 on somebody who is in their VTC program and graduates.”

But Nuss said cost-savings cannot be the only motivating factor – it must remain about helping people.

“I believe that I have an obligation to those veterans who put their lives on the line to protect me and because of their service contracted this disorder,” Nuss said. “And that disorder, in turn contributed to their committing this crime. I feel responsible for them and I want to see them restored.”

Congressional support

U.S. Senator Moran, R-Kansas, serves as the ranking member of both the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee and the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies (CJS) that provides funding for these courts.

The CJS Subcommittee passed a funding bill last year that included $25 million in funding for VTCs – an 8.7% funding increase from the previous year.

Our Veterans Treatment Courts often point veterans towards mental health care resources, substance abuse support and mentorship opportunities to help them adjust to their life after service. The yearly funding package for 2021, which Congress passed in December, included increased resources for establishing these courts to provide critical services to our veterans, including those in Sedgwick County.”

Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kansas

Moran joined Luckert, Nuss, McCarthy, other judicial leaders across the country, and retired Army Major General Butch Tate in December in a Zoom meeting to discuss Congress’s support for veteran treatment courts.

Once the country is past the pandemic, Goering says he and the other VTC supporters will be able to turn their attention back to the project.

He says the remaining challenges are figuring out a way to identify appropriate candidates to participate in such a specialty court, determining staffing needs, and trying to figure out how to add this docket to the existing case load.

Nuss tells KSN he is determined to get more VTCs in Kansas.

“We are not going to let veterans and VTCs be forgotten. We’re going to keep pushing.”

Update – July 26, 2021

At the July 20 Sedgwick County staff meeting, commissioners and Sedgwick County district attorney Marc Bennett discussed the feasibility of implementing a VTC. Bennett suggested using the existing infrastructure of the drug court to get things started.

“I’ve got an infrastructure in place. Those folks are plenty busy, so I’d have to figure out how to shift some work around but I think we can figure out how to get it done without a major additional expense,” Bennett said.

Additional support staff would be needed for the effort.

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