Tonight, the Board of Commissioners is expected to vote on creating a new accountability court focused on processing cases involving veterans.
Cobb Superior Court will implement the Veterans Accountability and Treatment Court program through a partnership with the Veterans Administration.
Cobb District Attorney Vic Reynolds said officials noticed a need for the program when they began to encounter a high volume of cases involving veterans.
“We kept noticing we were running into a number of individuals who had a prior military background who were getting in trouble,” Reynolds explained, “so we began to look into the possibility of having a court specifically for veterans.”
Reynolds said from what limited history there is of veteran courts in the U.S., the evidence encouraged him that creating one in Cobb “was an appropriate way to handle” certain veterans’ cases.
Officials said the new program will be modeled after the county’s two existing accountability courts that handle drug and mental health cases.
Judge Reuben Green, who was appointed to the Superior Court in 2010, will preside over the new program. Green has also served as the county’s assistant district attorney.
He said Cobb’s drug court has helped lower the recidivism rate — the amount of repeated offenses the court processes — during the decade it has been in operation.
Drug court provides qualified people charged with drug-related crimes with treatment and heavy oversight during a set time period, Green explained, including drug testing multiple times each week.
“It’s certainly cheaper to treat someone than to incarcerate them,” he said of the rehabilitative process employed by accountability courts.
Reynolds said the formation of accountability courts has provided people who have needs that can’t always be met by Cobb Superior Court with appropriate legal treatment.
“I think it’s helped in a number of ways,” he explained. “One, it’s helped keep people out of jail that don’t necessarily need to be there. Second, it’s helped individuals get the specific type of help they need.
“Drug court helps drug addicts. Mental health court helps people with mental health challenges. We’re very confident that veterans court will help veterans who have some type of issue based on their military service.”
Green, himself a veteran of the U.S. Marines, said the program will handle offenders differently based on their criminal record.
“Research suggests many of the veterans coming back from prior and current wars have adjustment issues when they come back into civilian life, like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Traumatic Brain Injuries,” Green noted. “So they could have the mental health-type issues. They also could be treating their mental health issues with different substances. So a lot of them have co-occurring issues.”
He used the example of a veteran facing charges for a felony drug offense in his first brush with the criminal justice system. After successfully completing an 18-month long regimen of treatment, therapy, meeting milestones and monitoring, the veteran would graduate from the program without a conviction on his or her record.
Mandated milestones for all offenders include landing a job, finding housing and supporting their children, if they have any. The veterans will also be tested for drug use on a frequent basis, Green said.
Offenders who come attached with a criminal record will still receive a conviction, but remain on probation for the duration of the program.
Much of the treatment eligible veterans receive will come from the VA, Green said. It will include the litany of drug and mental health assistance typical to accountability courts.
But the county’s veteran court will add a special element to its treatment program.
“One of the unique aspects of veterans court is that we use mentors who have served,” Green said.
He explained any former service member who was honorably discharged can volunteer to mentor a veteran in the program, as peer guidance is an important aspect of the court’s holistic approach to rehabilitation.
The Cobb Sheriff’s office assisted in the program’s creation, Green said, by compiling arrest data for veterans.
He said the office discovered 10 to 15 former military members are being arrested in the county every month.
“We are one component of the program, and our job is to assist the judge by providing criminal information regarding potential participants,” said Nancy Bodiford, spokesman for the Sheriff’s office. “We also conduct home visits of program participants to ensure they are in compliance with guidelines set forth by the court.”
Green noted many of the usual charges somehow involved drug use.
“We’re seeing those guys come in, and what we’ve seen in charges typically and in the research, is a lot of it is going to be drug-related crimes, whether that’s actual possession or doing things to get the drugs, such as prescription fraud or theft,” he explained. Green added violent crimes, such as domestic violence, made up another significant portion of the arrests.
Three veterans’ cases are already slated to be processed in the new court once it is approved, Reynolds said.
The court, to be managed by existing Superior Court staff, will likely hit the ground running once it receives the go-ahead from the board, Reynolds said.
He estimated the veterans court would begin much like a similar accountability court did when the board approved its creation in April of last year.
“My guess would be we would do like we did with mental health court,” Reynolds said, “starting with a limited amount of folks at first to work out all the wrinkles in the program and then grow exponentially.”
The DA’s office helps funnel cases into the most appropriate court, Reynolds said.
“We would look at the case and make some decision of whether or not the case was qualified to go in (veterans court),” he said.
The type of offenses awaiting trial will play a major role in deciding where to send a veteran’s case, Reynolds said.
“Obviously, if a person was charged with — God forbid — killing someone, they wouldn’t be allowed in veterans court,” he said. “If we thought the person’s offense could in some way be linked to their prior military service, we would sent it to veterans court.”
Reynolds said the court will draw its entire funding from a federal grant. Not a dollar of county cash will be spent on the new program, he noted.
Green said his team has attended instructive conferences and veterans courts around the state and country in order to prepare for the court’s launch. He estimated there are about 160 such courts in the country, but only a handful in Georgia today.
Besides the personal connection he feels to the issue given his own service and that of much of his family, Green cited his anticipation of a growing problem as a reason why he will head the new court.
“One of the additional reasons other than just wanting to help people, is I think also we’re going to see a lot of these young people coming back from Afghanistan and Iraq from multiple tours,” he explained.
“Most of the people in our military now are doing multiple deployments, and doing them more rapidly. And I think that’s having a profound impact. I think we’re going to see in the future a lot more PTSD, a lot more physical injuries.”
Green estimated this would translate into higher crime rates among veterans.
“We have an obligation to help the veterans transition from their duty to their civilian life,” he said, “and all too often we’ve been derelict in that responsibility.”
Green added any interested local veterans who were honorably discharged can volunteer their time in the court’s mentoring program by contacting his office at (770) 528-1860.