Legal community joins fight for normal life waged in Madison County Veterans Court
For some veterans returning from the fight overseas, the fight at home may be just as daunting if it involves run-ins with the law.
But specialized courts staffed by veterans to help fellow comrades who have stumbled into the legal system are emerging all over the country.
The nation's third such court, established in Madison County last year, is headed by Vietnam veteran and Circuit Judge Charles Romani.
In an interview with the Record on Tuesday, Romani – who heads the Third Circuit Criminal Division -- said the movement toward developing veterans courts grew from the anticipated needs of a new wave of troops coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan. Today, there are approximately 40 veterans courts in the U.S.
Madison County's Veterans Court, which is also staffed by a prosecutor, public defender and probation department workers, assists non-violent offenders who have been honorably discharged from U.S. military service. Many participants deal with drug, alcohol or mental health issues, such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Monthly status conferences are mandatory for all participants in the system. The court checks the progress the veterans have made and makes adjustments if needed. Most end up with probation and, in the case of domestic violence cases, counseling or community service may be ordered as well.
Court staff also works with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in St. Louis to help participants deal with issues related to education, benefits, housing and employment.
Romani said that the connection between the court's military experience and those coming into the program is vital to its success.
"Veterans tend not to discuss their problems with people who are not veterans," Romani said. "And they see it as a sign of weakness. But in a group of veterans, they will fully discuss their problems. It always helps to have someone who's been through that and understands the problems."
The highly structured nature of the court helps its participants complete it because it references their recent military training, Romani said.
"It's helping these younger veterans getting their lives together," the judge explained. "These younger folks . . . they come from a very structured society in the military. They're used to following orders. They don't want to let anyone down."
Romani said that while most program participants are Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, there have been Vietnam and Korean War veterans who have successfully graduated from the court.
To date, there are seven graduates.
One of those veterans had been represented by Alton criminal defense attorney John Stobbs.
It only took one experience with Madison County's Veterans Court for Stobbs to ask his fellow members of the Madison County Bar Association to help support the program.
The Bar Association came through for the program on Wednesday with a $5,000 donation.
Stobbs said he hopes it will be the first of many from throughout the community.
"I was stunned," Stobbs remembered. "I was stunned at how much good they (the court) did."
Stobbs had represented an Iraq war veteran who had developed a drug problem, which caused the veteran to run afoul of the law.
"It would have ruined his life," Stobbs said, noting that his client had been facing a felony drug conviction, "and this guy's over there fighting for us and some addictions he has possibly because of his service is going to ruin his life? That's just wrong."
Stobbs said his client found his way to Romani's court.
"Everyone is there to help the veteran," Stobbs said. "He went through it successfully and from what I understand, he's become a productive member of society."
The program was something Stobbs believed the county's bar would support and he approached its board about a donation.
"The lawyers of Madison County want to show that they care for a great program like the Veterans Court and they support it 110 percent," Stobbs said. "We need to put our money where our mouth is."
Court launched with a lot of experience - without a dime
Madison County Chief Judge Ann Callis approached Romani two years ago about forming the court after hearing about the success of Buffalo City Court Judge Robert Russell who pioneered a veterans' court in New York.
"Being a veteran myself, I jumped at it and said, 'Absolutely,'" Romani recalled.
Callis, speaking at the (Bar Association) check presentation ceremony on Wednesday, said the community was vital in keeping the court's mission moving forward.
"Our veterans' court was started without a dime," Callis said. "Everyone came together on this. It manifests that you can do a court like this with a community effort and without a dime."
The veterans' court doesn't receive any state funding.
But it has received a lot of recognition. Earlier this year, it was honored by the Atlanta-based Foundation for the Improvement of Justice.
It also received one of six Paul H. Chapman awards for an alternative sentencing program, which resulted in a $10,000 award. Rep. John Shimkus, R-IL, a U.S. Army veteran, nominated the court for that honor.
Courts spread with new laws, political support
The only other veterans courts in Illinois are in Cook County.
In July, Illinois Governor Patrick Quinn signed into law a bill giving chief judges in the states' circuit courts the right to form veterans courts.
Bradley Lavite, superintendent of the Madison County Veterans Assistance Commission said Wednesday that Madison County officials have been helping at least three other Illinois counties prepare courts of their own.
Romani said that he has discussed the courts with representatives from St. Louis County and the city of St. Louis.
In September, Romani, (New York Judge) Russell and other veteran court judges traveled to Washington D.C. to speak to the House Veterans' Affairs Committee in a day-long round table about the courts and the need to meet the demands of a new generation of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans.
"They were 100 percent behind it," Romani said of the meeting.
Romani expressed his hope that a bill pending in Congress that would allot $25 million a year for five years nationally to develop more veterans courts would pass.
"It's something everyone wants to do," he said.
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U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs
810 Vermont Ave NW
Washington, DC 20420
City of St. Louis
1200 Market Street
St. Louis, MO 63103