The Shelby County Veterans Court is looking for a few good men (and women) to pair with veterans who go through the new court program aimed at keeping former members of the military out of jail.
Launched on July 15th and formally announced last week, the court identifies veterans who have been charged with crimes and pairs them with treatment and a mentor. After successfully completing the program, the vet's record may be expunged.
Cases that qualify for Veterans Court include all misdemeanors (except for DUIs and certain weapons charges), all property crimes, and both misdemeanor and felony drug cases that would normally be referred to the Shelby County Drug Court.
Mentors assigned to help people charged with the above crimes must be military veterans, and they must be available to lend an ear to their client at least once a week.
"The mentor is a buddy, an ally," said Barney Barnhart, who acts as mentor co-coordinator for the Shelby County Veterans Court along with George Grider. "The biggest job of a mentor is to listen and support, emotionally or however we can."
Barnhart said they're especially in need of mentors who have served in Iraq or Afghanistan because vets who have recently returned from those countries have high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder.
"Some of these guys have beaten their wives to a pulp or beaten relatives, all manner of things an ordinary veteran from my era probably wouldn't have done," said Barnhart, who is a Vietnam veteran.
There were 19 volunteers in the first training class for mentors, and another training session will be held in early August.
Not only does the new court pair vets with mentors, it also connects them with Veterans Administration services they may not be taking advantage of. Once a veteran has qualified for the weekly vet court session, they'll be placed on the docket for General Sessions Criminal Court judge Bill Anderson's courtroom. Anderson volunteered for the vet court position.
The United States Department of Veterans Affairs will verify that the candidate is eligible for VA treatment.
"One of the good things for a veteran who gets in trouble is he goes to the head of the line for VA services," Barnhart said. "Most veterans have to get in line, and it's a long process. But if a guy goes through the vet court, they'll know if he's eligible for services in 24 hours."
Much like the Shelby County Drug Court, the Veterans Court focuses on treatment rather than punishment for a crime. That treatment can include VA services for medical care, substance abuse, life-skills training, mental health counseling, parenting classes, and job-readiness training.
Once the veteran completes treatment, Anderson may dismiss his or her charges, or, in more extreme cases, he may give sentencing considerations. If a veteran fails to comply with the program, the judge may take action to ensure compliance.
The Shelby County Commission offered the start-up funding for the court — $60,000 to pay the salary of Curt Wilson, the Veterans Court coordinator. Anderson said the county money was a one-time request, and the court will rely on federal grants in the future.
To apply for mentorship, go to vetcourtmentors.org.