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New court to link veterans with services

Pantagraph - 12/27/2017

Dec. 27--BLOOMINGTON -- Area veterans who become involved with the criminal justice system will have a new avenue for assistance next year when the 11th Judicial Circuit opens the McLean County Veterans Court.

After a year of planning, a team of about 35 people involved in the criminal justice system and veterans affairs recently approved the final procedures for the problem-solving court. After final approval by the Illinois Supreme Court expected early in 2018, the veterans court will begin screening potential participants.

The possibility of a veterans court for McLean County was initially set aside because the number of possible clients was determined to be too low to justify the sources needed to provide the mental health and substance abuse treatment needed by many veterans, said Cassy Taylor, court services and probation director for McLean County.

But the 2016 mandate from the state that each judicial circuit establish a veterans court and a nudge from local judges put the idea back on the table for review, said Taylor.

Judge Robert Freitag, a current member of the U.S. Army Reserve, and Judge Charles Feeney III, a former U.S. Marine, served on the planning group. Feeney will be the presiding judge for the new program.

The court will have a capacity of 40 veterans, a number that organizers believe will be reached because the program covers McLean, Livingston, Logan, Ford and Woodford counties.

Honorably discharged veterans are eligible for the intensive probation program that allows them to apply for expungement of their record after they graduate.

Potential clients for the voluntary program will be identified during the intake process at county jails. If needs are identified by jail staff, the Veterans Administration will be called to meet with the defendant and discuss a possible referral to the public defender's office for veterans court.

After coordination with the state's attorney's office and court services, the veteran will be screened for the program aimed at providing treatment for those recovering from the consequences of their military service, including PTSD, traumatic brain injuries and substance abuse.

Jerry Vogler, superintendent of the McLean County Veteran's Assistance Commission, said the attitude of some veterans toward accepting help can be a stumbling block for linking them to the services they are entitled to receive.

"There was a lot of dissatisfaction within the veterans community about having a separate court for veterans. There was a stigma attached to it. Veterans believe they are personally responsible to take care of themselves," said Vogler.

The supervisor of the veterans support agency is hopeful the county's third problem-solving court will be an important resource for military members.

"The veterans court gives them an alternative, a better option, to address the issues that caused them to be involved with the law," said Vogler, who estimated that only about 70 percent of those who are eligible for assistance for a service-related disability apply for help.

Mental health and substance abuse treatment will be provided through the Veterans Administration and local health care providers.

McLean County operates a drug court for about 50 offenders and recovery court for about 20 defendants whose conduct may be linked to a mental illness.

Follow Edith Brady-Lunny on Twitter: @pg_blunny


(c)2017 The Pantagraph (Bloomington, Ill.)

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