Updated 7:15 p.m., Sept. 7, with passage of money for the court - Military veterans who are charged with non-violent crimes will soon have a new court to help them in St. Louis County.
The County Council voted unanimously Tuesday night to spend $60,000 this year on a veterans treatment court. Councilman Mark Harder, a Ballwin Republican who sponsored the bill, said he hopes that next year, the council will vote to spend another $150,000 for a full year of operation.
Harder said the new court will help veterans who qualify deal with issues such as drug or alcohol abuse that may have led them to commit offenses.
"The idea is to get them clean and sober and make the productive citizens," Harder said after the vote.
Harder said the St. Louis County treatment court will be the eighth in Missouri.
Our earlier story:
Richard Powers knows firsthand the power of a veterans court.
When the Vietnam veteran ran afoul of the law in California, he was put through a rigorous treatment program that helped him alleviate his addiction to drugs. It also put him in touch with housing and educational opportunities that put him firmly back on track.
“Veterans in general don’t like to admit they have a problem. And when they do have a problem, they have trust issues. So they fight against everything that is authority,” said Powers, who lives in north St. Louis County. “And being a position to go to a place where they can get support for other veterans … they’ll see a light at the end of a tunnel. They’ll realize that it can work for them too.”
Powers was one of roughly a dozen speakers on Tuesday urging the St. Louis County Council to set up a veterans court. The council approved a resolution supporting the creation of the rehabilitation program – and could approve an ordinance formally setting it up later this summer.
Backers of veterans courts see the program as an alternative to incarceration – and a way to get people with drug, alcohol or mental health problems connected with the right people. The need is especially acute in St. Louis County, which is home to an estimated 70,000 veterans.
“The veterans’ court will help our veterans that get in trouble with the law get some of the help they need,” said Councilman Mark Harder, a Ballwin Republican who sponsored the resolution supporting the creation of veterans courts. “And in coordination with the Veterans Administration, they will help give them – whether it’s counseling, whether it’s dealing with homelessness, anger management, stress disorders – anything they need to make this transition from military life to civilian life a lot easier in relation to the courts.”
St. Louis Circuit Court Judge Doug Beech said the courts are especially needed now because the “wars that we’re in today – not just Vietnam, but the current wars – have so many different kinds of problems that we don’t see.”
Beech said the prosecuting attorney’s office is involved with the veterans courts. He said the office agrees “if this person gets through our program, which typically takes about 18 months, they will then have an opportunity to have their charges changed – if not forgiven.”
“And it’s very weighted in that court has an ongoing involvement,” Beech said. “For the first two months, I will see somebody every single week. ... They’re required to have random drug tests twice a week for the entire program. If they have specific needs, and we really anticipate in the beginning they will have some very serious needs, then the VA has assigned a VA officer to us. And they will assist them.”
Harder said St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger is giving the program a budgetary review. When that’s finished, he expects the council will approve the veterans courts over a three-week period.
Powers said when the program becomes active, it will be a life-changing experience for veterans in need of help and support.
“You’re kept in an environment of success. And you’re allowed to thrive in that environment,” he said. “And once you see that little light at the end of the tunnel, it’ll grow as long as you keep walking toward it.”