Macomb County prepares to open court for vets

MOUNT CLEMENS, Mich. (AP) - John Walus believes military veterans in trouble with the law deserve extra help in trying to overcome their legal and personal issues.

The Mount Clemens attorney's ardent belief is shared by many other officials in Macomb County who have teamed to start the Veterans Treatment Court that will provide special services to veterans charged with crimes.

"I feel we owe at least this much to help these individuals who sacrificed in what they did, to help them get back on their feet and become productive members of society," said Walus, a 22-year Army veteran.

The Veterans Court will start April 12 under the guise of judges Mark Switalski and Tracey Yokich in Macomb County Circuit Court in Mount Clemens, and Judge Carrie Fuca in 41B District Court in Clinton Township. Judge Steve Sierawski in 41A District Court in Sterling Heights will start a court later this year.

The specialty court will allow military veterans charged with some crimes to undergo treatment for mental illness, substance abuse, homelessness and unemployment in lieu of jail or prison time, in an intense 1-to-2 year program. They will be screened by the Veterans Administration for potential benefits, and each will be assigned a volunteer mentor.

Nanette Colling, veterans outreach specialist for the John D. Dingell VA Medical Center in Detroit, called Macomb County "progressive" in its effort.

The Macomb VTC will be among the first in the state. There is one VTC in a circuit court, Ingham County, and district courts in Detroit, Redford and Novi, while others are being developed statewide.

The VTC has received widespread support from the Macomb County Bar Association, Prosecutor Eric Smith, Sheriff Anthony Wickersham, the VA, judges and veterans organizations.

"Usually there's a reason why someone's committing crimes not just because one day they decided to commit a crime. There's a underlying reason there," said criminal defense attorney James Maceroni. "As long as we're moving the conversation toward treatment — whether it's veterans or people that are addicted to drugs or whatever — I think that's a benefit and opens the door to wider conversation about defendants in general."

The court is expected to reduce crime and save money, said Lisa Ellis, chief of specialty courts.

"We're saving money in jail beds at the Macomb County Jail, we're saving money in state beds in the prison system," Ellis said. "We are saving the community because these people are going through job training and job placement, so hopefully they come out employed and no longer on public assistance, not to mention not bringing them back through the court system another time in the future."

Many veterans suffer from ailments, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, that contribute to criminal behavior, said attorney Gail Pamukov-Miller, president of the Macomb Bar Association.

"As a result of their service, often times they have mental issues, depression, PTSD, physical injury, traumatic brain injury," Pamukov-Miller said. "They are disproportionately represented in terms of homelessness, unemployment and contact with the criminal justice system."

Gaining Wickersham's support was critical because his department plays a key role in identifying potential participants.

In the past, "sometimes we didn't know a defendant was a veteran until we got the pre-sentence report before sentencing," Switalski said. "Maybe the guy has done something heroic for his country but we don't find out until awful late in the process."

Like drug court, there is a list of excluded crimes, such as rape, murder, fleeing police. Participants who are unable to comply with conditions could be forced to serve their sentence. Perhaps the most important aspect of the program will be the volunteer mentors, 22 to start.

"Only a veteran can speak to a veteran like a veteran can," Walus said. "That veteran can say things to me as a fellow veteran that, 'It's the way it is,' because I'm a veteran and I can throw it back at him the same way he's throwing it to me.

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