A new specialized court will help some veterans who get in legal trouble in Livingston, Tangipahoa and St. Helena parishes get treatment instead of jail time.
“Veterans who come through the court system have different needs from regular criminal defendants," said Brenda Ricks, chief judge of the 21st Judicial District. "They’ve given up their lives, their family, their time, and we need them to go back in society and be the productive members they can be.”
Ricks and two of her colleagues spoke at a recent Livingston Parish Council meeting to promote the court and seek veteran mentors to guide participants through the program.
A hybrid of the drug and mental health court models, the court will serve veterans facing addiction, mental illness and post-traumatic stress disorder, among other diagnoses.
“Typically, if they come through, maybe it’s a mental health issue, maybe it’s a substance abuse issue," said Judge Brian Abels. "We can do treatment in our own court but also partner with other sources if they need jobs and things like that.”
Abels' father was a veteran, he said, serving in the Navy during WWII.
"If anybody deserves a second chance, it’s our veterans,” he added.
The 18-month program includes regular court appearances, drug and alcohol treatment, random drug testing, support group meetings, educational classes and community supervision, the website says.
Mentors will step in to help with housing issues, employment searches and other potential challenges. There is a particular need for female veterans to serve as mentors, Ricks noted.
"If they successfully complete the program their record is wiped clean," she said.
If the veterans cannot complete the program they will be expected to serve their sentences.
The program will not be available for those accused of sex crimes or murder, among other select charges. If a participant is booked on domestic abuse battery, other stipulations will apply in addition to the general program requirements.
Ricks has pushed for a vetrans treatment court since 2014, but she was told funding wasn't available, she said. The new program will be supported through federal grant dollars.
A separate case manager will handle the veterans court.
Officials added they are looking at other specialty courts for the 21st JDC, including a mental health court. Treatment will soon be offered in-house starting in July.
Judge William Dykes said both the public defenders and law enforcement are on board, so it's easier to rapidly identify veterans entering the criminal justice system.
“The quicker we can get them out of jail and get into something productive, get them some kind of treatment, the better off we’ll be," he said.