Success of Maine veterans court inspires plan to expand
Portland Press Herald, Maine
For Travis Bentley, it wasn't the daily barrage of bullets, explosions and rocket fire during his two tours in Iraq that proved too much to bear. It was the return to civilian life in Maine.
The former U.S. Marine sergeant suffered brain and back injuries as a result of bombings in Iraq. He was prescribed methadone and oxycodone for the pain and was living without treatment in York County years later when his reliance on the heavy narcotics turned into a desperate addiction.
Bentley said he was in such a foggy state of mind in 2011 that he hardly recalls robbing pharmacies in Springvale and Rochester, N.H. But he knows for sure that if it weren't for the intensive support and supervision afterward in a pilot Veterans Treatment Court in Augusta that he would have gone right back to a life of drug addiction after serving prison time for his crimes.
"I wouldn't have been able to do it without them," said Bentley, a 29-year-old husband and father who has been drug-free for 2½ years now.
Bentley's success story is a source of inspiration to state Rep. Lori Fowle, D-Vassalboro, who is seeking legislative approval to fund the Veterans Treatment Court so it can be expanded to other parts of the state.
Under the program, veterans convicted of crimes can avoid lengthy prison terms if they meet strict requirements set by the court.
Fowle introduced a new funding bill, which will be aired before lawmakers on Tuesday, after attending the first-ever Veterans Treatment Court graduation last year and hearing how Bentley, living in Lebanon at the time, almost failed the program because the Augusta court was too far away.
Bentley is among the one in every six veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq who have had substance abuse problems. An estimated one in five of the more than 2.5 million veterans of those two wars has post-traumatic stress disorder or another mental health disorder, according to federal data compiled last month by the National Association of Drug Court Professionals.
There are about 11,000 documented veterans of Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom now living in Maine, with about 6,800 enrolled in the Veterans Affairs Maine Healthcare System and 4,600 actively using those services, VA officials in Maine said last week.
The difficulty for the state Judicial Branch is that there are no hard numbers to show how many of those returning veterans got in trouble with the law and whether expanding the Veterans Treatment Court program is warranted.
"We do not have any data on the numbers of veterans in the criminal justice system, and that is a difficulty in responding to this legislation," said Mary Ann Lynch, government and media counsel for the Judicial Branch. "On the one hand, there is a reasonable view that, 'If you build it, they will come.' On the other hand, there is simply no data on how many veterans are involved in the Maine criminal justice system and are charged with a serious crime."
Lynch said the veterans court in Augusta now has 15 participants and can accommodate 10 more before it reaches capacity. To date, 20 veterans have been admitted to the program. Of those, two graduated, two died and one was expelled.
The veterans court pilot program started in 2012 as part of the pre-existing Co-Occurring Disorders Court, designed to aid offenders dealing with mental illness and substance abuse problems. Justice Nancy Mills now presides over both programs in Kennebec County Superior Court.
The creation of the program was spurred by the fatal shooting by Farmington police of Afghanistan veteran Justin Crowley-Smilek, who was threatening officers with a ridknife, in 2011. He had appeared in court the day before the shooting and was ordered to seek psychological help.
Men and women can enter both Co-Occurring Disorders Court and Veterans Treatment Court by pleading guilty and committing to meet rigorous requirements involving treatment, counseling and reporting to the court. Those in the Veterans Treatment Court are mentored by other veterans and work closely with the VA Maine Healthcare System in Togus.
Bentley said in an interview last week that when he first entered the veterans court, he started for the wrong reasons but it ultimately turned his life around.
"At first I was still in the mindset of an addict. I was thinking this will keep me out of prison. I figured I would do it my way, which didn't work out too well," Bentley said. "At first, I was driving up here once a week. I was living in Lebanon. I was doing it my way. They said, 'You either move up here or you're going to be kicked out.' They put me in jail up here in Kennebec County. That was when everything changed."
Bentley now lives in Whitefield in Kennebec County with his wife and daughter. He collects some veterans disability benefits but is getting close to graduation from Central Maine Community College in Auburn, where he is studying building construction.
"I'd say the majority of us make it. You're going to have a few people who just don't get it, but most of us who were in the military, we have that discipline of taking orders. They're not ordering us to do something, but they are giving us advice to put us on track," Bentley said. "It's worth it. If you need help, they'll get you the help you need."
Bentley said that if he had gone to prison rather than through the treatment program, he believes he would have gone back to drugs when he was released.
"I would have wasted two years of my life," said Bentley, whose tours in 2005 and 2006 were in Falluja and Ramadi. He saw intense fighting in Ramadi.
Fowle said she attended the first veterans court graduation last September and was moved by the stories describing how Bentley and the other graduate, Dan Andrews of Winslow, were before they went to war.
"They come back broken," Fowle said. "They end up in a place where they never would have been if they didn't have that traumatic experience of going out to serve their country."
It was Bentley's story in particular that convinced her that having just one veterans court for the whole state was not enough.
"I guess it hit me that this young man from York (County) had to relocate. It struck me that I thought that was wrong," Fowle said.
Her draft bill, which is more comprehensive than she wants, calls for $1.16 million to pay the salaries of three judges, three deputy marshals, four full-time assistant clerks and one part-time assistant clerk. Fowle said that figure is what it would cost to cover the state's most basic expenses if the veterans court program were expanded to all 16 Superior Courts in the state.
"That is not my intent," Fowle said, explaining that the draft bill was written by a Judiciary Committee staff member. "I don't know that there's a need statewide, but I think we need more than one."
Fowle said she hopes that through discussion, lawmakers will be able to determine how many more veterans courts the state needs and the best locations for them.
Fowle argued that the program is very cost-effective when the alternative is sending the veterans to prison. Imprisonment costs roughly $45,000 per year per inmate, compared to the $10,000 or so it costs per person for veterans court.
"I think this will be a savings if not a wash," Fowle said. "Even if it costs $10,000 per year to put one veteran through this treatment program and it takes two years, you are saving a lot of money."
Fowle also argued that the veterans court is not an easy way out for veterans facing prison time. If they don't abide by the strict terms of the program, they'll do time for their crimes, she said.
"You have young men who we've sent off to fight for us who come back broken. They've taken on the world to protect us. We owe it to them, I think, to bring them back as whole as we can," she said. "They didn't choose to do this. This isn't somebody who chose to come back broken."
The only way state officials now can find out how many veterans are in the criminal justice system is to rely on county jails to screen incoming inmates through the intake process.
But Cumberland County Sheriff Kevin Joyce said he can't even say with assurance that the number of veterans in the jail he oversees in Portland has gone up.
"I just don't know that I can answer that," Joyce said.
Joyce said that many inmates are reluctant to self-report as veterans at intake for fear of losing VA benefits. But he said that is just starting to change since the VA now has a dedicated person who visits Maine jails, Veterans Justice Outreach Coordinator Anne Archibald.
Archibald said many veterans come back from service and turn down VA services, thinking "that's not me."
"Then you see them come back five to 10 years later, and it's because things get worse and worse and worse," Archibald said. "As a military person, you are trained to deal with a lot of stress. You are trained to hold out until you can't hold out any more. It's really hard to admit."