By Jim Hagerty
ROCKFORD – Veterans make up a significant percentage of the United State prison population. About 10 percent.
Thousands return from duty with a range of problems including alcoholism and underlying psychological and emotional issues that, although treatable, can take years to manage. It’s all too familiar for veterans to arrive home and not have immediate resources; some come back to Rockford homeless and must turn to municipal services for shelter. Others find themselves in custody for crimes. For those, there’s a state program called veterans court.
The Winnebago County program is part of the 17th Judicial Circuit Court Problem-Solving Division overseen by Judge Janet Holmgren. Designed to give veteran offenders a second chance and, most importantly, services they need, it offers deferred sentencing for non-violent offenses if veterans agree to undergo substance abuse or mental health services. Once they complete the voluntary program, their charges are dismissed.
“The goals of veterans court is to enhance public safety in a fiscally responsible manner and to improve the quality of life for the individual participants, their families and the community by reducing the likelihood that they will re-offend,” Deputy Court Administrator Emily Behnke said. “Veterans must attending court regularly, meet with probation and comply with toxicology screening.”
There are currently 15 veteran courts in Illinois. The Veterans and Service Members Court Treatment Act allows for the program to be operated at the local level. And what officials are discovering is that the one-size-fits-all criminal justice system will fail those who could truly benefit from treatment and are willing to receive it.
“Veterans courts are designed to enable judges to have more discretion and understanding of the complex and unique issues facing our veterans,” says State Sen. Sam McCann, R-Plainview. “These courts can be more sympathetic to challenges such as PTSD that can be a major part of how veterans ended up in court in the first place.”
“When emotional problems are left untreated, a coping mechanism is typically avoidance,” Rockford psychotherapist Leann Jenkins said. “People avoid their emotions by using drugs and alcohol. If they become addicted to drugs and alcohol and have limited resources, that will typically lead to criminal activity and homelessness.”
Some crimes where untreated issues are at the root lead to violence, learned behavior brought on by a toxic assemblage of disorders common to returning veterans such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression and traumatic brain injury.
Especially those who have seen combat find themselves unable to cope with civilian life, and not realize why even after they get into violent situations they normally would have avoided. Many are sent to jail, where they are not properly treated. And with combat veterans responsible for more than 20 percent of the nation’s domestic violence, veterans court could not have come at better time, experts say. The more people avoid treatment, the more complex the issue becomes.
“It’s not a black and white issue,” Jenkins said. “There is a lot of gray area. It depends on the trauma and levels of resiliency. Unresolved trauma-related symptoms including flashbacks, nightmares and difficulty sleeping could negative impact one’s quality of life.”
They could also be deadly.
“The rate of suicide increases if emotional problems are not addressed or treated,” she said.
In 2014, more than 7,400 veterans took their own lives. As veterans only comprise 9 percent of the U.S. population, that number is more than alarming. Last year, a study by the Veterans Administration that included 50 million records, showed that approximately 20 veterans commit suicide every day.
Winnebago County also offers services for veterans through the Veterans Assistance Commission. The program provides assistance for honorably discharged veterans and their families, including shelter, financial assistance and hygiene. Veterans must be residents of Winnebago County to qualify for the program.
The commission worked alongside former Mayor Larry Morrissey’s administration in 2015 to help make Rockford the first city in the nation to reach functional zero among homeless veterans. R.