Efforts underway to establish veterans treatment court in Rowan County

Published 12:10 am Tuesday, June 28, 2022

SALISBURY — Justan Mounts was awestruck by what he was seeing.

Mounts, director of Veterans Services for Rowan County, was sitting inside the Harnett County Courthouse. He was there to observe a veterans treatment court — a special diversion program designed to help military veterans who have committed minor crimes get the mental health and treatment services they need but might not otherwise receive.

The goal of the non-traditional court is to prevent veterans, particularly those suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or other cognitive impairments due to their service, from committing another crime in the future. 

“I was blown away,” Mounts said.

Mounts and others are now laying the groundwork to establish a similar program in Rowan County. Earlier this month, the Rowan County Board of Commissioners passed a resolution supporting the effort.

Mounts said the resolution is “one of the first very serious steps toward a commitment to see where we can go with this.” However, he also acknowledged that there’s a significant amount of work that needs to be done before the court comes to fruition.

Commissioners also passed a 2022-23 fiscal year budget that includes enough funding to make a part-time Veterans Services position full-time, in part to help efforts to establish a veterans treatment court.

Mounts and others started seriously discussing the idea of a veterans treatment court in 2020, but the pandemic put a pause on those conversations. With the court system no longer operating under the crush of COVID-19, Mounts is making a renewed and reinvigorated push.

The nation’s first drug treatment court specifically for veterans was started in Buffalo, New York, in 2008. Harnett County launched the first veterans treatment court in North Carolina almost nine years ago. There are now similar programs in Buncombe, Catawba, Cumberland and Forsyth counties.

While each veterans treatment court takes a slightly unique approach, the overarching goal is to prevent veterans from reoffending.

Zane Campbell, director of the Harnett County Veterans Treatment Court, said their program accomplishes this by focusing on the root causes of why an individual veteran may have committed a crime.

“By addressing those needs, those mental health issues, and getting them therapy for those traumatic events that took place, it eliminates the drugs and alcohol portion for most veterans,” Campbell said. “You have some that go back, but for the most part it gets rid of that. They get treatment, they get therapy and they continue on that track and it leads to a life of not reoffending.”

That approach has paid off. The program’s recidivism rate, which is the percentage of program graduates who commit another crime, is around 5%.

Every veteran who enters Harnett County’s program starts by accepting responsibility for their crime, Campbell said. The program only accepts individuals who have committed misdemeanors or low-level felonies, usually those involving drugs or alcohol. 

There are five phases to the program, which can last between 18-24 months. Regular court appearances, drug tests and treatment sessions are required. Upon completion of the program, Campbell said a veteran may receive a reduced sentence or have their case dismissed.

Harnett County is a regional court, meaning it accepts veterans from different parts of eastern North Carolina. There are currently about two dozen veterans in the program. Before COVID, Campbell said the program averaged around 40 individuals at any given time.

Mounts said he doesn’t want to “reinvent the wheel” in establishing a veterans treatment court in Rowan County. Instead, he plans on knitting together the “massive amount” of resources that already exist in the area. Mounts said the Salisbury VA Medical Center is eager to be involved and he also plans on partnering with the Veterans Benefits Administration’s regional office in Winston-Salem.

“We’re in a phenomenal position,” Mounts said.

Mounts said the court would work to fulfill whatever needs a veteran might have, whether it’s therapy, drug treatment, housing, food or employment.

The veterans treatment court will require a number of community partners to buy in, from courthouse officials such as the district attorney and head district court judge to local veterans organizations. Ideally, a treatment court coordinator would oversee the program.

Mounts said the process for establishing a veterans treatment court typically takes at least a year. The first step is getting local officials on board, then receiving state state approval and securing funding. The majority of funding for the program will likely come from grants.

Not deterred by the amount of effort or time it will take, Mounts said it will be worth it to help someone who has served their country get their life back on track.

“There are proven ways that these things can be done that now you’ve taken someone who has committed a crime and now they’ll never commit another one and they’re in a good place,” Mounts said. “Their life is to a place where they’re not in survival mode anymore.”

About Ben Stansell

Ben Stansell covers business, county government and more for the Salisbury Post. He joined the staff in August 2020 after graduating from the University of Alabama. Email him at ben.stansell@salisburypost.com.

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