TOPEKA — Like many veterans, Chris Carter left the Marine Corps after 20 years of service with his fair share of mental health issues.
Plagued by PTSD, survivor’s guilt and a failing marriage, he fell into a pattern of alcohol abuse and was charged on three occasions in a single year for driving under the influence. Carter said he was lucky not to have hurt himself or anyone else during this dark period of his life.
He faced several years in prison before he stepped into the newly formed Veterans Treatment Court in Johnson County.
“I could feel the positive energy,” Carter said. “This guilt, the combat trauma and everything else that happened to me was wrapped around me so many times, like a rope. That veteran treatment core team was there to unwrap that rope to take it off me, to release that pressure.”
VTCs are specialty courts — new courts developed to manage specific offender populations — and intended to provide structure and rehabilitation for military men and women battling mental health or substance abuse issues. With eyes on criminal justice reform across the country, several legal leaders in Kansas are encouraging more of these treatment courts be adopted across the state.
In a 2015 report from the U.S. Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Statistics, nearly 8% of inmates serving time in state and federal prisons and local jails were veterans. Diversion options are rare for veterans in the criminal justice system.
Carter was fortunate to be in the only county in Kansas with a VTC, which he credits with turning his life around.
“When I graduated that, I felt like I felt like a whole person again,” Carter said. “I was excited about life. And that is a gift that these veterans receive when they graduate Veterans Treatment Court and completed it successfully. And it is the most powerful thing that I’ve seen.”
VTCs were established in 2008 by Judge Robert Russell, the presiding judge of the Buffalo Drug and Mental health Courts, to provide a more structured approach to rehabilitation for veterans.
Since their creation, VTCs have received praise from criminal justice advocates and law experts. Data shows veterans involved in these treatment courts experience lower rates of recidivism — about 14%, down from 23% nationwide.
Engage, encourage, empower
One of the loudest supporters of increasing the number of these treatment courts in Kansas is Lawton Nuss, the former chief justice of the Kansas Supreme Court.
“It’s another arrow in the quiver, if you will, to try to solve problems in our criminal courts,” Nuss said. “It is not a one size fits all. And what works for some people may not work for others.”
Nuss is a veteran and hails from a family with strong ties to the U.S. military — his father, four uncles and his son served, as well. This connection drove the former chief justice’s interest when he heard of these veterans courts eight years ago.
Nuss said he has long supported all forms of specialty courts, advocating for expanded drug courts and behavioral health courts across the state during his time as chief justice. He left his position as the highest-ranking judge in Kansas to focus on VTCs for veterans who have been accused of committing a low-level felony or misdemeanor.
To qualify for these courts, veterans must also have a psychologist or counselor diagnose them as having a mental health issue that arose out of military service.
Once a veteran is deemed eligible, he or she will embark on an intense supervision program surrounded by a team that consists of the judge assigned to the case, probation officers, representatives from the VA and, perhaps most importantly, a fellow veteran mentor.
“That mentor, a fellow veteran, by some people has been called the secret sauce in these courts,” Nuss said. “Sometimes, it takes a military position to connect with another military person.”
The veteran-mentor relationship focuses on the three Es — engage with the veteran, encourage them through the process and empower them for their life after the program.
Besides meetings with their mentor, veterans also report their progress as often as every week to the judge. The team of people assigned to aid the veteran also meets frequently to discuss how to adjust the program.
“They will meet privately to talk about each of these veterans on the docket, to see how they’re doing, who’s doing well, or who’s in danger of dropping out of the program because they’re not following what they’re told to do,” Nuss said.
If program participants do not follow through on requirements, some reprimand is likely to follow. In some cases, defendants may find themselves in jail for a week, or in more extreme cases, they are dismissed from the program entirely.
‘Go do it’
The program takes 12 to 18 months to graduate. The regimented approach is often compared to military service, said Timothy McCarthy, a judge for the 10th Judicial District in Kansas who spearheaded the creation of the VTC in Johnson County.
“We had to convince the defense attorneys to convince their clients because this is harder than a diversion or regular probation,” McCarthy said.
McCarthy began looking into specialty courts as an option for Johnson County in 2014 as a newly appointed judge.
“Half the cases that I saw were substance abuse related and 25% mental health,” McCarthy said. “We had 68 veterans with an active case and over 100 on probation. We went to our chief judge and said we think we ought to have Veterans Treatment Court, and he said go do it.”
On Jan. 13, 2016, about 18 months after the first meeting to plan the program, McCarthy and colleagues launched the first and only VTC in the state of Kansas.
What began as a small team with a prosecutor, public defender and probation officer has since expanded to allow a more thorough treatment process, McCarthy said.
“We went out and spoke to every organization that would listen to us. Went to the bar associations, the defense lawyers associations to try to convince them about the court,” McCarthy said. “I try to speak to veterans’ groups whenever I can and try to recruit mentors because it makes all the difference in the world.”
McCarthy’s team has expanded to 15 people on the court team and 10 people on the steering committee to oversee operations. The added staff allows them to work with 20 to 25 veterans at once.
Anyone in Johnson County who has served in the U.S. military and was charged with anything below a second-degree felony may enroll in the VTC program.
Since the court began, McCarthy and company have graduated 41 veterans with eight awaiting graduation and several more in the pipeline.
More specialty courts
Kansas Supreme Court Chief Justice Marla Luckert is working with other legal experts in Kansas to add more treatment options for veterans in the criminal justice system.
As part of that effort, Luckert organized a series of webinars to advocate for VTCs. The first virtual forum featured Carter, Nuss and McCarthy, and attendees included judges, attorneys and law enforcement officers from across Kansas.
Luckert said these webinars should help buffer the preliminary work being done in counties beyond Johnson.
“At this point, we only have the Johnson County VTC, and we have interest from several of our other district courts in setting up these courts,” Luckert said. “So Wyandotte County, for example, has made some initial plans. Shawnee County is in the process of some planning, as well as several other courts. And then some of those smaller courts who have drug treatment, courts are looking at ways that they could perhaps develop a track related to veterans.”
If not for the pandemic, Luckert said, they would be further along in establishing these courts.
Efforts to expand VTCs could receive a boost next legislative session after the Kansas Criminal Justice Reform Commission recommended a specialty courts commission be established.
“One of the purposes for that commission will be to be a central place for grants,” Luckert said. “Right now, what we have often is the court in community A is competing with the court in community B for the same grant dollars. The thought is that by having the commission really be a place for that funding to flow through and then distribute to the local courts.”
This progress is pivotal to addressing rising rates of reincarceration in Kansas, Luckert said. She recalled how time spent working in a drug treatment court inspired her to pursue more specialty courts in the state.
Luckert said the program is not a perfect solution, but she is encouraged by the supporting evidence and progress being made.
“It is highly successful in reducing recidivism, which of course improves the safety of our communities,” Luckert said. “But it also puts the participants, whether they be veterans or a participant in another court, on a path that they have tools to allow them to be productive members of society.”
Carter is living proof of that. Once part of the first class of graduates of the Johnson County program, Carter now serves as a mentor giving back to those who are following in his footsteps.
Every graduation, Carter said, he can see the impact VTCs have had on himself and those around him.
“You see tears at graduation. You see these strong bonds have been formed are so clearly evident, and it’s very powerful. It’s a powerful thing to watch to be a part of,” Carter said. “Thank you, from the bottom of my heart to the veteran’s treatment court team at Johnson County. It truly changed my life. It continues to change my life, so I’m eternally indebted to everybody.”