Two judges in Butte are working to establish a court geared specifically to helping military veterans who have run afoul of the law address substance abuse, mental health issues and other problems.
If Butte City Court Judge Jerome McCarthy and District Court Judge Robert Whelan are successful, Butte would join other cities including Missoula, Billings, Bozeman and Great Falls as having a veterans treatment court.
Montana ranks second only to Alaska in veterans per capita, according to U.S. Census figures, and the judges believe Butte ranks at or near the top per capita within the state.
“We want to reach out to veterans who have served and sacrificed,” said McCarthy, who was in the U.S. Air Force from 1986 to 1990.
“Obviously we have a high number of veterans here in Butte,” Whelan said. “This is our opportunity to provide another service to them that will hopefully help. I think they are deserving of it given other things they have given to us in their service.”
Because of their military experiences, particularly combat, many veterans suffer from mental health problems and many are addicted to drugs or alcohol or both. Many struggle with family and housing issues, too, and any or all those things can lead them to commit crimes.
Those who do can be steered to veterans treatment courts where available and get immediate help from mentors, professional counselors and others, even while their cases are still pending. There also are family courts and drug treatment courts in Montana.
“It’s not that they are going to get special breaks on their sentencing,” Whelan said. “Actually, going to treatment courts is a major commitment in their life because of how much counseling they will go through. The reward is … hopefully we are giving them a better way of life moving forward.”
The key, they said, is to get veterans help quickly so they don’t go farther down a criminal path.
Another key to veterans courts are volunteer mentors — veterans themselves who have experienced the same things and faced some of the same challenges. They meet often with court participants and help guide them through struggles such as drugs or alcohol abuse, anger issues, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and domestic violence.
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There would be others on the court “team,” too, including a coordinator to determine if a defendant is a good fit for the program, a mental health professional, and representatives for law enforcement, probation and parole, prosecutors and public defenders.
There would also be someone to help participants take advantage of benefits and services through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
“It’s not a complicated process but a lot of times people who are suffering are just kind of hitting a brick wall,” McCarthy said.
McCarthy and Whelan will be applying for a VA grant that would fund the court in Butte.
“This is 100-percent funded,” McCarthy said. “The local government isn’t expected to pick up any of the tab.”
Their grant application will be due in March, but there is plenty to do before that. They plan to visit with veterans at the American Legion Hall in Butte soon to talk about their plans and seek people willing to be mentors.
A two-day mentor training “boot camp” for Montana will be held in Billings in September and they hope some from Butte will be there. They hope to have others on the team assembled in the next few months.
As currently envisioned, it would be joint-jurisdiction court, with McCarthy overseeing misdemeanor cases and Whelan dealing with crimes that include felonies. That’s how the judges operate in their existing roles. But those details have yet to be worked out.
It’s also possible they could get private donations and get the court started before a VA grant comes through, since it could be a year before it does. Regardless, they hope it’s up and running sometime in 2020.
“Hopefully by this time next year we will be well on our way,” Whelan said.