OLYMPIA – Thurston County is launching a new Veterans Court pilot project later this month to help troubled veterans stay out of the criminal justice system and get their lives back on track. The court will come to order for the first time on July 22 at 3:30 p.m. at the Thurston County District Court, 2000 Lakeridge Drive S.W. in Building 3.
The pilot project offers a way for veterans to get a fresh start and avoid time behind bars, provided they follow mandated treatment programs and appear regularly in court to discuss their progress.
Veterans who successfully complete the program might have their current charges dismissed or get a reduced sentence.
The program is available to veterans and active duty service members who have committed nonviolent crimes associated with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, brain injury, or another type of mental illness related to duty in a war zone.
A representative of the Washington State Department of Veterans Affairs will participate in court hearings to recommend appropriate services, and a Veterans Court program manager will meet defendants outside of court for an in-depth review of their cases.
Presiding Judge Brett Buckley, a veteran himself, said the court offers a lifeline for a growing number of veterans and service members who suffer from war-related psychological wounds. The goal, he said, is to intercept veterans with treatment and resources before they fall into deeper trouble with the law.
" Veterans Court will allow the criminal justice system to address underlying issues in an intensive and highly supervised manner. Accountability will come from the defendant's efforts to deal with their issues rather than simply taking up bed space in the jail," Buckley said.
Thurston County Commissioner Cathy Wolfe said the court's proactive approach will serve the community, service members and their families.
"You can take somebody out of a war zone, but you can't always take the war out of a soldier's mind. That's where this type of program can make a difference," said Wolfe. "Offenders are still held accountable for their crimes, but they have the opportunity to heal themselves in the process."
Thurston County already has a Mental Health Court , but veterans often reject that option because they fear the stigma of having a mental illness or feel treatment is a sign of weakness, said Veterans Court Program Manager Marianne Clear. The new program will provide tailored services that meet the unique needs of veterans and help them feel less isolated, she said.
"We want veterans to know that they're not alone, and that there's no shame in seeking treatment," said Clear.
Thurston County officials report that as of July 8, 33 of the 436 inmates in the Thurston County jail have been identified as veterans or active duty service men and women. This number does not include those who are currently out of custody with pending charges and are at risk of coming into custody, and it does not indicate how many suffer from mental illness. The new Veterans Court program will involve gathering more detailed data about veterans in the local criminal justice system. Convicted service members stand to lose security clearances or the right to carry a firearm, which often leads to their being discharged.
According to the Washington State Department of Veterans Affairs, veterans with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder are more prone to displays of aggression, substance abuse and suicide.
Veterans Court will convene every Wednesday at 3:30 p.m. at the Thurston County District Court. The Veterans Court will be funded by existing Mental Health Court funds.