CULLMAN, Ala. – As of Thursday morning, Cullman County’s court system now gives veterans who struggle with the mental and emotional aftermath of their service a new means to deal with issues faced by many who have been to war, and which contribute to higher than average rates of substance abuse, anger control and even suicide among those who served. The Cullman County Veterans Treatment Court offers veterans who have been arrested for nonviolent offenses an alternative to jail time and a criminal record. It will not excuse any crime committed; in fact, the veteran must plead guilty to the charge, but the program will help that person overcome whatever life situation brought him or her to the point of committing a crime.
A manual developed by the county court system for use by mentors who will assist veteran offenders describes the program:
A Veterans Treatment Court is a specialty court that is designed to deal with veterans who have gotten into minor trouble with the criminal justice system. Individuals who are charged with more serious criminal offenses are not permitted to participate in the program. If an individual is charged with domestic violence, he or she will only be allowed to participate in the Veterans Treatment Court if the victim agrees. To be assigned to Veterans Court, the Veteran must agree to plead guilty, and then must undergo treatment required by the court. The Cullman County Veterans Treatment Court holds individuals accountable for their wrongful actions, but also attempts to address the underlying reason for their aberrant behavior.
Military service is a positive experience for most people, but for some, especially those who have served in combat situations, their military service has created or exacerbated mental health conditions such as PTSD, traumatic brain injury or substance abuse problems. Unfortunately, it’s not unusual for individuals who have returned from active duty to be arrested for drug possession, domestic disturbances or stealing to support their drug habit. Veteran Treatment Courts have specially trained judges, administrators and mentors that understand the specific mental health issues presented and are aware of the resources available through the VA and other avenues that can be utilized to address these problems.
Participants undergo a period of intensive supervision including regular drug screens and meetings with court officials, followed by periods of incrementally stepping down the requirements until the veteran is ready to graduate. Participants should plan to be in the program around 12 months, with mentors- who are veterans themselves- walking side by side with them all the way through the process.
Cullman’s program is patterned on the already active Madison County Veterans Treatment Court, which currently enjoys an approximately 85 percent success rate.
Cullman’s Veterans Treatment Court came about through the efforts of Circuit Judge Gregory Nicholas and District Judge Wells “Rusty” Turner. Turner, who is a Navy veteran himself, will take the lead with Nicholas in a support role.
During a recent mentor recruiting event, Turner told The Tribune, “I think it will give people an opportunity to, if they’ve made a bad choice, that they can rectify that bad choice and turn a negative into a positive, and hopefully get their life back on track. If it’s something relatively serious, or if it’s just a minor hiccup that can affect their employment and definitely affect their relationship with their family members, if we can help fix that, then I’m all for it.”
How does Veterans Treatment Court work?
According to the manual: Veterans who are arrested for a criminal offense are given a Veterans Treatment First Call court date at the time they are released on bail from the Cullman County Detention Center. At the First Call hearing, the accused will be provided an attorney if they are indigent and do not already have retained counsel and, if the offense is one that would qualify for acceptance into the Veterans Treatment Court, the accused veteran will be provided an application. The accused, in consultation with his or her attorney, may submit an application for admission to the Cullman County Veterans Treatment Court, along with a copy of his or her DD214. The completed application will then be reviewed by the Cullman County Veterans Treatment Court Compliance Committee to determine whether the applicant meets the minimum qualifications to enter the Veterans Treatment Court and would otherwise be a good candidate for the program. Being allowed to enter the Cullman County Veterans Treatment Court program is a privilege and not a right.
If the application is approved, the applicant will be assigned a date to appear in court to enter a plea of guilty to the charged offense and be formally admitted into the Veterans Treatment Court program. The judge presiding over the Veterans Treatment Court will accept the guilty plea but withhold adjudication and sentencing, conditioned upon the participant’s completion of the program. At the time a guilty plea is entered, the participant will also be assigned two Mentors, a primary mentor who will typically have the most interaction with the participant and a secondary mentor, who will be available in the event the primary mentor is unable to attend court or to otherwise interact with a participant.
Upon successful completion of the program, which typically takes 12 months, the District Attorney files a motion to dismiss or nolle prosequi the criminal charges against a participant and the judge enters an order dismissing the charges. However, before criminal charges are dismissed, the participant must pay all restitution owed to the victim.
If a participant doesn’t successfully complete the program
Veterans Court is not a “get out of jail free” card, as the manual explains:
When a defendant has failed to comply with court ordered random drug testing or treatment recommendations, sanctions are immediately imposed by the Veterans Treatment Court judge. Sanctions may include community service or incarceration in the local detention facility for a short while. Because of this intensive supervision that is designed to address the underlying drug or mental health problem, those individuals who graduate from a Veterans Treatment Court are far less likely to reoffend in the future.
If a participant commits a new offense or fails to abide by the requirements of the program, he or she may be terminated from the program at the discretion of the judge, adjudged guilty and sentenced pursuant to the plea agreement for the offense committed.
Veterans Treatment Courts partner with local law enforcement, mental health services, veterans’ services agencies and others to bring resources together from a broad range of disciplines to help participants, but the main points of contact between veterans and the program are other veterans who serve as mentors.
The county program’s mentor handbook says: Veteran mentors play an important role in the Cullman Veterans Treatment Court program. Because of their shared military service experience, mentors are better able to communicate effectively with participants who have been charged with committing a criminal offense. With the support and encouragement of mentors, participants in the program are much more likely to successfully complete court ordered treatments for their service-related mental health or substance abuse problems and graduate the program to be restored as valued and productive members of our community.
Mentors come to court with participants, help them navigate through the legal and treatment system, and hold them accountable for meeting their program requirements. While they are not counselors, mentors can offer a sympathetic ear for participants who just need to talk through some issues. Maybe the most important resource they offer the participants is their friendship.
Earlier this year, Army veteran and experienced Madison County program mentor Ray Zimmerman told a local group of mentor candidates that the mentor’s best tool is to “just care about your mentee.”
Said Nicholas, “We’re really fortunate, I think, in this county that we do have people in the DA’s office, and the judges, and the law enforcement that are committed to veterans. And this concept is something that we’re all invested in, but it’s really not going to work without the mentors. The mentors really are the heart and soul of this program, because they provide the tools that are necessary to help that individual that has run afoul of the law kind of navigate through the judicial system.
“Now, again, the mentors are very helpful; they’re going to help navigate. They’re not going to be therapists, they’re not going to be lawyers, but they’re still going to be instrumental, really, in helping the veterans court program succeed.”
Cullman County Veterans Treatment Court is in need of mentors. Volunteers will not have to go in blind, but will undergo training led by instructors from established veterans court programs. The county is currently seeking military veterans to serve as mentors, believing that people who understand the military experience and “speak the language” can offer the best help to other veterans.
If you are a veteran who is interested in helping other veterans by becoming a mentor, please contact one of the following:
- Darrell Brewer, Cullman County Veterans Service Officer, Cullman County Courthouse, 500 Second Ave. SW, Room 109 in Cullman. Phone: 256-775-4662. Brewer will be supervising the mentor program.
- VFW Post 2214 Commander Will Harris at 256-739-6611 or email@example.com. Mentor applications are available from, and completed forms can be dropped off at, the VFW Post, 112 Veterans Dr. SW in Cullman.
On Tuesday, Nicholas said, “Memorial Day is a time that Americans reflect on the ultimate sacrifice made by military men and women who died while in the service of their country. It’s only fitting that the Cullman Veterans Treatment Court will officially accept its first applicants into the program this coming Thursday, just a few days after the Memorial Day celebration honoring our veterans. The court will be presided over by District Judge Wells ‘Rusty’ Turner, who is himself a retired veteran of the U.S. Navy, and I am confident he will provide the necessary leadership to make the program a complete success. With the support and encouragement of veteran mentors, participants in the Veterans Treatment Court program are much more likely to complete court-ordered treatments for their service-related mental health or substance abuse problems and graduate the program to be restored as valued and productive members of our community.”
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