WELLSBURG - While the fact that one in nine West Virginians has served in the military in some capacity is a point of pride for many in the Mountain State, there's another statistic that deeply concerns Brig. Gen. Charles Veit. It is that about one in 10 inmates in West Virginia's prison system are veterans.
So Veit, assistant adjutant general of the West Virginia Army National Guard, was especially pleased to be in Brooke County Monday to join local officials in celebrating the start of a new court treatment program aimed specifically at military veterans - the first of its kind in West Virginia. The program will allow nonviolent veteran offenders who have been diagnosed with a mental illness to receive treatment in lieu of incarceration.
The initiative is an expansion of the Northern Panhandle's existing alternative sentencing program for the mentally ill, which now will be known as the Northern Panhandle Mental Health and Veterans Treatment Court. Though veterans participated in the old program, the new veterans' track includes features geared toward their unique needs.
COURT OPENS — Jim Lee, chief probation officer for West Virginia’s First Judicial Circuit, spoke Monday during the opening in Wellsburg of the state’s first court treatment program aimed specifically at military veterans. - Ian Hicks
Those include being assigned a court-trained "battle buddy," a fellow veteran who volunteers to mentor the offender as he or she completes the program, the provision of an "outreach specialist" from the Veterans Administration to educate the participant on services available through the federal agency. Like the existing drug and mental health court programs, participants in the veterans court are eligible for reduced sentencing or outright dismissal of the charges against them if they successfully complete all requirements - and are subject to the statutory penalty for their crimes if they fail.
Veterans court sessions will be held every Thursday at the Brooke County Courthouse in Wellsburg.
Veit said upon returning home, veterans often have difficulty finding work, leading to economic hardship and sometimes marital problems. And when emotionally troubled veterans begin to "self-medicate" with drugs and alcohol, the result is often a run-in with the law.
Even more troubling than the level of incarceration among veterans, Veit said, is the high rate of suicide, particularly those who have survived combat. He noted 18 American veterans kill themselves on an average day, and this year alone, 154 active duty soldiers have committed suicide.
"Many of them went off to do something idealistic for their country, and they returned broken - physically, mentally or both," Veit said of veterans.
During his remarks, Veit recalled a famous quote of unknown origin - "Poor is the country that has no heroes, but beggard is the country that having them, forgets."
The veterans court program is very close to the heart of Jim Lee, who as the First Judicial Circuit's chief probation officer has been deeply involved with the existing drug and mental health court programs. Lee, a Vietnam War veteran, described himself as "a troubled soul" upon returning home, noting he was even arrested once.
"My family and my community took care of me," recalled Lee, who has served in his current post since 1972.
Also at the ceremony was Circuit Judge David Hummel, who oversees the treatment court docket in the 2nd Judicial Circuit covering Marshall, Wetzel and Tyler counties. He said such community corrections programs are about more than helping the person whose name is on the case file - it's about repairing the trust among family and friends that often is broken when someone slips into substance abuse.
"These are issues that are deep and broad, and they are in our community," said Hummel.
Steve Canterbury, administrative director of West Virginia's courts, said treatment court programs save taxpayers tens of millions of dollars each year. Those programs, he noted, cost about $10 million per year to administer - a far cry from the $60 million it would take to house the approximately 3,000 offenders currently enrolled in alternative sentencing for a year, at an estimated cost of $20,000 per inmate.