By Laura Camper / [email protected]
Marcus King, 68, finally learned that he is important just a few years ago when he was a part of Veterans Court.
“Vietnam veterans had a real hard time,” King said, his voice breaking with the emotion he was trying to hold back. “They made me realize that I was valuable and that I should be proud of my service.”
King didn’t want to talk about what landed him in jail, but he was eager to talk about the life-changing experience of Veterans Court. He writes about what it taught him every day on his Facebook page, he said. He learned about setting boundaries. He learned about giving back to the community. He learned about friendship, he said.
While he was in the program, administrators made sure he got to the Veterans Administration hospital for surgeries to restore his eyesight. They took him to a special program where he was honored for his service by the governor of Georgia. They cheered on his efforts to give back to the community.
What is Veterans Court
Since 2015, Coweta County has been ushering troubled veterans through its Veterans Court as a means to keep them out of jail. Currently there are five veterans in the program.
The court was started by Coweta County Judge Joseph Wyatt, said Superior Court Judge John Simpson. Simpson took over the court a couple of years ago, he said. Initially it was funded with a federal grant, but now it is funded with grants from the Council of Accountability Court Judges.
“We already had a felony drug court program and would regularly have veterans apply to that,” said Jeniffer Barnett, Accountability Court manager. “So we decided to apply for the grant funding for the veterans treatment court to make a veterans-specific program so they could be treated for their specific issues.”
Veterans can have unique problems that need to be addressed including post traumatic stress disorder stemming from their service. They also have a unique life shared with other veterans.
“They really seek that camaraderie in each other,” Barnett said of the veterans.
The local Veterans Court has graduated 11 veterans since 2015, Barnett said. Two participants transferred to another county, and four were terminated from the program.
“Sometimes, the participants are unable or unwilling to comply with the terms of the program,” Barnett said. “It is an intensive outpatient treatment program designed to rehabilitate the participants.”
How it helps
One graduate, Tony Bowden, 49, is now a mentor with the program. Bowden graduated from the court in 2018 after 19 months in the program.
Barnett said those charged with a felony spend a minimum of 18 months in the program, and those charged with a misdemeanor spend a minimum of 12 months. But it really depends on the person, Bowden said. There are 12 milestones that each veteran must attain to graduate. It took him 19 months, but it can take longer. Bowden knew of a veteran who was in the program for five years before graduating.
Bowden was an addict when he entered the program, he said. A US Marine — he served from 1992 to 1996 — Bowden had a family background that included drug use, he said.
“My family has a history of drug problems, so I was always around it growing up,” Bowden said, adding that if he hadn’t joined the Marines, he would have probably been using much earlier.
After he finished his time in the military, Bowden started a trucking and wrecker company. It went well for a time, and then he started having money problems. It was stressful, so he turned to drugs as he had seen so many family members do. At first, he was able to maintain the facade of normalcy.
“I was just behind the curtains using drugs,” Bowden said. “The drugs were an easy fix to the problem.”
But once he came down from the high, the problems were still there. So, he’d use more. Eventually, he was caught. He was arrested and put on probation. But he kept using and was caught again. This time he went into Veterans Court.
“It gave me the tools I needed to get clean,” Bowden said.
The program allowed him to tap into the discipline that he and other veterans gained in the military and use that to help him pull himself out of the addiction, Bowden said. It was easy to talk to the other veterans because at some point, they have all had similar experiences, he said.
Veterans Court is one of a number of accountability courts offered in Georgia, which also include drug court, mental health court and in the juvenile court system, family treatment court. Defense attorneys are generally the ones who request evaluation of their client for an accountability court, Simpson said. Each court program is tailored to address the problems within that court, he said.
The most prevalent problems that the local Veterans Court has found among local veterans are addiction — alcohol tends to be the drug of choice — and mental health issues including anxiety, PTSD, depression and anger issues, Barnett said.
“Through our training, we’ve been taught to pick high need people for the court,” Simpson said. “So a person who just simply has a criminal charge for possession of drugs, that would not be enough. It’s a person who’s got a lot of challenges because the study of problem-solving courts has shown that the resources are best spent on high-risk, high-need people.”
But there is a line they have to balance, he said.
“Sometimes the mental health issues are just so overwhelming, we don’t feel like we can do it,” Simpson said.
Through the program the participants receive individual therapy based on their needs. It starts once a week and then is individualized. There are treatment groups three times a week including anger management, parenting, budgeting, job skills, volunteer work.
“(We’re) trying to get them to reintegrate into a civilian lifestyle,” Barnett said.
They also coordinate care with the Veterans Administration for health care, psychiatric services or additional substance abuse or mental health treatments, she said. A veterans justice outreach specialist acts as a liaison between the court and the VA, Barnett said.
Giving a hand up
The courts not only help the people going through the program, they help the community. The participating veterans are required to volunteer in the community. King, who has been gardening his whole life, planted flowers and vegetables at the Accountability Court building and other sites in the community. He also volunteered at Bridging the Gap, which he enjoyed so much, he volunteered on his own after he graduated from the program, King said.
In addition, the accountability courts save the community money. Instead of incarceration, the participants pay a monthly fee to participate in the accountability court. They are able to be productive in the community while working through their problems.
“We have them in an outpatient treatment program working on rehabilitating, helping them to be self-sufficient citizens of the county,” Barnett said. “So they are working. They are paying their child support. They are paying part of their way in the treatment program.”
Accountability courts are a movement that Simpson would like to see expand across the state, he said. The local Veterans Court was named a model court in 2021 and he will be attending classes in December to train other communities to create their own, he said.
“It’s very different,” Simpson said. “Usually in court, we listen to the evidence and the evidence is filtered by the rules of ethics. But with this Veterans Court, we’re sitting discussing the person’s medical issues, their life issues. It’s atypical for a judge, but it’s what you do in problem-solving court.”
In Veterans Court, the purpose isn’t just to decide guilty or not guilty. It’s about solving the problem, he said.
Bowden also believes the courts are valuable.
“I think any veteran that needs help, no matter what, should be helped,” Bowden said. “I think the country owes you that.”
That’s one reason he continues to be a part of the program as a mentor.
“I just hope to help someone,” Bowden said. “It helps me to help other people.”
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