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Hundreds Of Veterans Courts See Success But More Are Needed

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Dealing with veterans who break the law can be complicated. They should still be held accountable for any crimes they commit. But sometimes there are underlying factors, like PTSD or substance abuse, that come into play. To address those issues, some parts of the country are setting up special courts for veterans. There are hundreds of these courts now, but their growth has been haphazard, bypassing some big cities and even entire states. Jay Price reports from one vet's court in central North Carolina.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: All rise, please.

JAY PRICE, BYLINE: In many ways, this seems like a typical courtroom.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Oyez, Oyez, Oyez - District 11A (ph) Veterans Treatment Court of the County Harnett (unintelligible) for the dispatch of business.

PRICE: But what goes on during the weekly sessions of the Harnett County Veterans Treatment Court is just the most visible part of a hybrid approach to justice. Judge Jacqueline Lee sets a friendly tone.

JACQUELINE LEE: So how are you?

WILTON MCKENZIE: I'm doing great, ma'am. How are you?

LEE: Fine. How many jobs have you got now?

PRICE: Standing in front of her as Wilton McKenzie, a former soldier who laughs a lot, even in the courtroom. Here, veterans charged with minor crimes come before a judge who's also considering what they went through in the military. Judge Lee isn't here to make a quick decision about whether veterans like McKenzie go to jail. Instead, she works to keep them on track as they get mentoring and treatment to end substance abuse or deal with mental health problems like PTSD.

LEE: We owe it to our veterans. They have gone through so much for our country, and we have an obligation to look after them when they come back.

PRICE: Since 2014, 21 veterans have completed the treatment programs and counseling required by just this one court. None of them have been re-arrested. That's similar to outcomes in veterans treatment courts around the country since the first one opened in Buffalo, N.Y., in 2008. Backers say the courts also save money and prevent crimes. That helps explain the surge in the number of veterans treatment court.

SCOTT SWAIM: Between 2008 and 2010, maybe there were 20 or 30.

PRICE: Scott Swaim is director of the nonprofit group Justice for Vets. He trains the staffs of newly established courts.

SWAIM: Just for me in the past couple years, you know, we trained 50 courts one year, 46 another, and we have a waiting list.

PRICE: His group now counts more than 300 veterans treatment courts nationwide. But some states still don't have any. In North Carolina, there are 100 counties and just three veterans courts. There are plans for at least a couple more, but advocates say the state needs as many as 17. There aren't any near the big cities, Charlotte and Raleigh.

SWAIM: Somebody in the legal system has to start it. Some judge somewhere has to say, yeah, I think it's a great idea or some legislator for some state, you know, has to legislate it and say, yes, we believe veterans treatment courts have value and, yes, you can start one.

PRICE: If you have money. Judge Lee's court in Harnett County got started with three years of state grants then won a $1.4 million federal grant this fall. That money will let it help more veterans like Wilton McKenzie, that vet with the frequent laugh. He served three hard combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and was diagnosed with PTSD.

MCKENZIE: They pointed me in right direction to get me the help that I need because I was not that type of person before the military.

PRICE: The 43-year-old McKenzie has close-cropped hair as if he were still in the Army and, until recently, a charge hanging over him of assault on a female after a fight with his wife. It was his first offense, and it meant the only job he could find is part time working for a waste hauler.

But his wife and a prosecutor and judge in his home county agreed that he deserved the kind of second chance that the Harnett treatment court could offer - if that court would accept him. It did, and he just completed more than a year and a half of treatment and counseling.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: It is with great pleasure it is hereby that you are recognized for completion of all requirements set forth as determined by the veterans treatment court.

PRICE: Like the other veterans who've completed the program in Judge Lee's courtroom, McKenzie got a formal graduation ceremony, and he got his charges dropped.

MCKENZIE: I mean, I can tell you, these people will never see me again here (laughter) not unless they ask me to come to, you know, visit (laughter).

PRICE: And if he's like all the court's other graduates so far, this will be his last brush with the law. For NPR News, I'm Jay Price in Harnett County, N.C.

(SOUNDBITE OF REKI SONG, "MOONBEAM") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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