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Ala. veterans court program serves as an alternative to jail

ANNISTON, Ala. — Local court officials and veterans advocates hope a new program will help those who have been in combat stay out of jail.

Calhoun County’s new veterans treatment court is an alternative sentencing program modeled on similar programs established around the country in recent years. Circuit Court Judge Brenda Stedham, who was asked to start the program by the Administrative Office of Courts, said on Tuesday that she wants to make the program more widely known.

According to veteran advocates, those returning from combat often have mental health disorders or substance abuse issues that can lead to criminal involvement. Such courts help treat the veterans and help them assimilate back into civilian life.

“When they become involved in the criminal justice system they are diverted into the penalty phase and go to jail or prison and it’s my strong conviction that this should not happen,” Stedham said during a press conference Tuesday. “We need to treat those problems that are causing the criminal behavior.”

A 2010 article published by the National Drug Court Institute, which researches alternatives to traditional prosecution, said that in recent years military researchers have begun to assess and recognize the effects of American military combat training and combat experience on civilian readjustment. Factors essential for deployment, such as constant awareness of surroundings, always carrying a weapon, an unexpected need for fast driving, constant emotional control and the need for strict discipline and obedience can be problematic in a civilian setting, the article said.

Frank J. Crow, the senior chapter service officer for the Anniston/Oxford chapter of Disabled American Veterans, attended Tuesday’s conference. Crow used a hypothetical example of a veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder striking a police officer during a traffic stop.

“Your button, your flip, your switch goes, and you strike that person, not knowing it’s a police officer,” Crow said. “Now you’re facing resisting arrest, striking a police official or whatever, and it’s really not your fault.”

Stedham said the way a veteran is admitted into a treatment program is to plead guilty to a charge, whether it be felony or misdemeanor. If the veteran doesn’t plead guilty, he or she goes through the regular criminal justice system and runs the risk of going to jail or prison, Stedham said.

According to Deborah Smith, a senior analyst with the National Center for State Courts, the treatment given to each veteran is different.

“They’re looking at what the particular diagnosis is for the veteran and then they try to match them up with existing veterans health services that they’re already entitled to,” Smith said. “If they find substance abuse issues, they would be offering those kinds of treatments, and if it’s traumatic brain injury or post-traumatic stress disorder they would be doing mental health treatment.”

Some veterans may be required to get a job or enroll in school as part of their treatment. Each veteran also gets a “Battle Buddy,” or mentor, they can go to for support.

“If they successfully complete the program, then their guilty plea is set aside. They don’t have a conviction, which makes it much easier to get a job on the civilian side,” Stedham said.

Crow said such a court will be beneficial for Calhoun County.

“The judge has offered a great benefit to veterans. They get in trouble but they have a way of recovering from it,” he said.

The court has been active since the beginning of the year, but Stedham decided to hold a formal conference Tuesday to bring public attention to the program.

“We think it’s very important for the public to know this program is available, and we need the support of the public with the program,” Stedham said.
 

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