After 4 years of planning and work the St. Johns County Veterans Court is now a reality! In a ceremony, attended by St. Johns County officials, veterans groups, and representatives from the community and Court Officers, Thursday January 19th, 2017, the court was officially opened. 7th Judicial Circuit Chief Judge Terrence Perkins named Circuit Judge Howard McGillin, a 28 year Army veteran and former lawyer with the Judge Advocate Generals Corps, the presiding Judge.
At the event, Judge McGillin credited the work of St. Johns County Veterans Council Chairman, Bill Dudley, and the vision of Senior Judge David B. Beck, who started the 7th Circuits first Veterans Court in Volusia County, for bringing a Veterans Court to St. Johns County.
Across the country, Veterans Courts see incredible outcomes helping qualified veterans stay out of the prison system and get back into the civilian society in a stable and productive manner. The first Veterans Court started in Buffalo, NY in January 2008.
Judge McGillin described the program and how it works. Here is a portion of Judge McGillin’s remarks. “So what is this court all about? A very learned judge described the challenges our veterans face when he said “some of these warriors pay a heavy price for their service when they return but are unable to leave the war behind them. They had been high-achieving individuals who chose to serve their country and have come home broken.” In many ways they have not made it all the way home. These veterans are here physically, but the hidden wounds of modern battle keep them separated from us in many ways. They have struggled with their recovery while trying to navigate various social safety nets and their associated bureaucracy.
The problem is that veterans coming home face those administrative challenges at the same time they try to reunite with their families and start or restart a civilian career. Their challenges are magnified by post-traumatic stress, traumatic brain injury and other physical and psychological problems that started in service. Unfortunately some of the veterans engage in misconduct including domestic violence, DUI, substance abuse or theft to support a substance habit. Many lose touch with their families. They become homeless. They often cannot work until they receive necessary treatment. Their disease, and notably PTSD, often prevents them from seeking help or staying in therapy. Many of them never connect to the many services the VA does offer. Instead they end up with frequent law enforcement and judicial encounters. They get caught in a truly vicious cycle that often ends up in jail or worse yet, suicide.
If a veteran suffering from PTSD starts to self-medicate and either uses an illegal substance or abuses alcohol or steals to support a substance habit, is there a better way to handle that misconduct? What is the message to society or to the veteran when they come home wounded after years of service and make a mistake, should our collective answer be punishment- probably not? The answer offered is Veterans Treatment Court- built on the highly successful drug court model. The court seeks to connect offenders to specific treatment and social service modalities to help them address their problems.
To be clear- this is not about a special deal for veterans. It is about personal responsibility and acceptance of actions and consequences. The veterans who come through this court will have to work hard to finish the program. Their treatment with the VA and community providers will be monitored. They will have to get and keep a job- or actively pursue the benefits they need if they cannot work. We will make sure they are clean and sober. If they slip up there will be consequences- perhaps a short jail spell, perhaps community service. When they succeed they have a responsibility of a clean record and a fresh start.
Across the country- and in our own circuit where this program has been implemented, the success rates are truly astounding – for those completing the program recidivism rates are about 1 – 3%. So this program works. And we have made a commitment to the County to monitor the performance here as well. It is not a free ride!”
St. Johns County and the greater veteran community wish the Veterans, veteran volunteer mentors, the court staff and Judge McGillin much success with the Veterans Court! Thank you for your efforts to help our warriors have a new path to success in civilian life.