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At special Mo. court, veterans get needed support

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — A special division of the Kansas City Municipal Court provides alternatives to military veterans who commit nonviolent offenses.

Kansas City launched its Veterans Treatment Court in 2009, modeling it after the Veterans Treatment Court that began a year earlier in Buffalo, N.Y. That program provides alternatives to jail time to military veterans who commit nonviolent offenses. Qualified veterans receive counseling or other assistance, The Kansas City Star reported (http://bit.ly/1dEJsTg ).

The Kansas City veterans court offers similar option. Veterans suffering from drug abuse and mental health issues appear on a special municipal docket. After going through a screening and assessment by the court, veterans participate in a 12-month treatment program instead of going to trial.

About 80 veterans have gone through the program, said Judge Ardie Bland, who presides over the court.

"Many of the veterans were caught in a cycle of committing crimes because many of them were dealing with issues of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), other kinds of trauma, substance abuse and homelessness," Bland said.

Bland wanted to expand on the court session that municipal judges presided over during the annual Stand Down event, during which veterans receive clothes, haircuts, job placement help and other assistance.

"We found many veterans running, ducking and dodging from the police all year just waiting for that one day where they could come to court and try to get their cases resolved," he said. "It was ridiculous to me that veterans would run and hide from the police after bravely serving their country."

Bland and Elena Franco, who then was the presiding municipal judge, went to Buffalo to observe its Veterans Treatment Court. Bland borrowed aspects of treatment courts in Buffalo and in Oklahoma to develop the effort in Kansas City.

Today there are about 270 similar treatment courts throughout the United States, Bland said.

Participants often are referred by police. Others may be encouraged to enroll when they appear in municipal court. Participation is voluntary.

Bland, along with the municipal prosecutor, a public defender or private attorney, and case managers from the municipal court and the VA develop a treatment plan for each participant. The veteran signs an agreement to abide by the treatment guidelines.

Once enrolled, the veterans go through a program that includes numerous court appearances and treatment sessions for mental health counseling or substance abuse. Sanctions can be levied for participants who fail to follow the court's instructions. Incentives are awarded for compliance.

Maynard Johnson Jr., who served two years in the U.S. Navy during the Vietnam War, lost his job and faced federal assault charges in 2012 for attacking his Postal Service supervisor. Johnson, 59, also smoked crack cocaine and marijuana. He checked himself into the Veterans Affairs hospital and was guided into the Kansas City Veterans Treatment Court.

He was among eight participants who completed the program this month.

"It helped me realize that it was nobody's fault that I was in the position I was in except my own," he said.

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