More local veterans who find themselves on the wrong side of the law will receive treatment instead of jail time, thanks to a $1.5 million federal grant received by the Tennessee Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services (TDMHSAS).
Currently, the Shelby County Veterans Court is able to treat 60 veterans at a time, but the grant money will allow the program to expand to a capacity of 117 veterans.
Since its 2012 launch, the Shelby County Veterans Court has offered mental health or drug treatment to certain offenders with military service backgrounds. The offenders are paired with mentors, who have also served in the military, and are enrolled in appropriate rehabilitation services. Their participation in the veterans court is an alternative to serving jail time.
Cases that qualify for the court include all misdemeanors (except DUIs and certain weapons charges) and most drug cases that would normally be referred to the Shelby County Drug Court.
In addition to offering rehabilitation options, the veterans court also allows those who are enrolled in the program to secure a stable home, receive job assistance, and complete their GED or enroll in college-level classes. The treatment time in veterans court normally ranges from 12 to 16 months.
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"It's much more than just a way for veterans to avoid a jail sentence," said E. Douglas Varney, commissioner of TDMHSAS. "This is a voluntary decision for a service member who's arrested on a non-violent offense to seek help, get into recovery, and start receiving the mental health and substance abuse treatment they need."
Other counties in Tennessee will also benefit from the federal grant. Montgomery County Veterans Court will see its enrollment increase from 40 to 78, and Davidson County Veterans Court will increase enrollment from 35 to 68. In total, the Tennessee Veterans Court will be assisting 263 more veterans over the next three years.
Ellen Abbott, the director of the Office of Criminal Justice Services for TDMHSAS and the author of the grant that secured the funds for Tennessee veterans, said that because of the expansion, the court will need more mentors.
"The Veterans Treatment Courts will need additional mentors to work in the courts to help provide peer mentoring to the expanded veterans courts' population," Abbott said. "A mentor may initially start volunteering with a veterans court that has a trained mentor already on board. They will work in conjunction with the trained mentor while they wait to receive the training."
An application for Shelby County Veterans Court mentors is posted on www.shelbycountytn.gov.
Abbott said Memphis has more veterans wanting to get into the program and more total veterans than the other two counties where a court is located.
"Shelby County has a veteran population of 61,165. Montgomery County, where Fort Campbell is located, has a veteran population of 25,331, and Davidson County has a veteran population of 40,066," Abbott said. "The higher the veteran population, the larger the veterans court will be."