A bill in the state House of Representatives would expand military veterans’ access to specialized probationary programs in Orleans Parish and Jefferson Parish courts — a change advocates say would help reduce recidivism by giving more defendants the counseling and treatment they need to turn their lives around.
Judge Ellen Shirer Kovach, of the 24th Judicial District Court, one of three Jefferson Parish judges trained to run the district’s veterans court since it was created 15 months ago, has testified in Baton Rouge on behalf of the bill.
The program, which is tailored to each participant, provides a veteran accused of a crime with a war-veteran mentor, a probation officer, and treatment and counseling, which can include moral recognition therapy and individual, group and family counseling.
Without veterans courts, the only choices are incarceration or regular probation, and “you don’t really address the problem,” Kovach said.
Under current law, veterans charged with crimes in the few parishes that have veterans courts are ineligible for the program if they have a prior felony conviction for a violent crime or one involving guns. The reason is that the enabling legislation for the new courts mirrored the laws that created drug and DWI courts, which exclude violent offenders.
The problem, which Kovach said became apparent soon after the Jefferson program started, is that many veterans who could benefit are excluded because they have a conviction stemming from a fight or because they were carrying a weapon.
Kovach said veterans tend to be comfortable around firearms and are more likely to carry them, and issues with post-traumatic stress disorder, substance abuse or traumatic brain injury could have gotten them into trouble with the law in ways that include violence.
“We’ve had trouble getting people in because our statute … is too restrictive,” she said. “What we’re finding is a lot of vets have a crime of violence or a gun offense.”
The bill, sponsored by Reps. Robert Billiot, D-Westwego, and Chris Hazel, R-Pineville, would change the law to automatically rule out only veterans convicted of homicides and sex crimes.
The idea, Kovach said, is not to allow every veteran with a violent past to enter the program, simply to allow them to be considered. The District Attorney’s Office still would have to agree in each case, followed by an assessment by counselors and, finally, by the judge.
Typically, prosecutors and judges want the victims of the veterans’ crimes to agree with the decision as well, Kovach said.
“All we’re looking for is the discretion to look at each individual circumstance and make the determination on a case-by-case basis,” she said.
Kovach stressed the program is not a free pass for participants but an intensive program they must work under every day for at least a year. They can be kicked out for not meeting the requirements or for violating their probation for up to five to eight years after completion.
The veterans courts in Jefferson and Orleans are not diversion programs. Enrollees have to plead guilty, but if they complete the program and satisfy their probation, their conviction is then treated as an acquittal. However, it can be used to enhance sentences if the person is convicted of another crime later.
There is a monthly supervision fee, though the district will work with veterans if they need help in paying it; job placement assistance, which can be part of the program, also can put them in a position to pay.
In Jefferson, the program is backed by a three-year, $300,000 grant. Despite the fact that between 50 and 75 veterans have been charged with a crime in the parish since it began in early 2015, fewer than 10 have been accepted into the program.
Kovach said about five have been kicked out for noncompliance and there are only a couple enrolled today. She said about five others could be considered for the program if the legislation passes and makes them eligible.
Kovach said similar programs in other parts of the country are giving veterans the help they need to stay out of jail.
“What we’re finding is veterans are responding very well to veterans court,” she said. “The recidivism rate is very low.”
Another yardstick, Kovach said, is Jefferson Parish’s drug court, which has a similar model of treatment and supervision and has a recidivism rate of only 6 percent for those who successfully complete the program. The DWI court rate is even lower, she said. The overall recidivism rate is about 75 percent.
Kovach said the 22nd Judicial District in St. Tammany and Washington parishes is looking at possibly starting a veterans court, and there is now a similar federal-level program in the Eastern District of Louisiana, based in New Orleans.
Kovach said supporters have been working with anti-domestic violence organizations to allay concerns about leniency toward domestic abusers. She said that is where the discretion of the prosecutors and judges and the screenings come into play: There are many layers to prevent people who shouldn’t get into the program from getting in.
There is another bill in the Legislature that would allow judicial districts to create pre-plea diversion programs, though those are different from the programs in Jefferson and Orleans, which require the defendant to plead guilty.
Kovach said she and other supporters of the Billiot-Hazel bill are hopeful it will pass. Similar legislation passed the House and Senate last year, only to be vetoed by then-Gov. Bobby Jindal. There hasn’t been any indication that Gov. John Bel Edwards would do the same, she said.
“It’s for the people who have served our country, and, for me, I can’t think of anyone more deserving of our help,” she said.