How Michigan Veterans Courts are healing heroes facing criminal charges

'Sometimes you have to hit bottom before you can look up.'
Posted at 3:45 PM, Dec 20, 2021
and last updated 2021-12-20 18:32:15-05

(WXYZ) — For as long as he can remember, Matthew Fisher wanted to serve his country.

“I didn’t want to sit behind a desk. I wanted to be, essentially, where the action was and try to make a difference,” said Fisher.

In 2007, Fisher enlisted in the U.S. Army. He was sent to Iraq where he trained the Iraqi national police.

“It was the longest 14 months you could imagine,” said Fisher.

Fisher says one day on patrol, his Humvee got hit.

“It was like being inside of a tornado,” said Fisher. “The enemy had placed roofing nails inside the explosive, so I was hit with all sorts of shrapnel from that.”

After his injuries, Fisher was medically discharged from the Army. When he returned home to Michigan, he says adjusting to civilian life was hard.

“I was at such a state of alertness for so long, you come home and things are quiet, and it just doesn’t feel right,” said Fisher. “I had a bus in front of me backfire, and I thought it was an IED.”

Fisher says he went through a divorce, couldn’t work because of his injuries, and got arrested for impaired driving.

“I really didn’t see much of a future for myself. I felt like I was going to succumb to suicide,” said Fisher.

But then his case got transferred to something called a Veteran’s Treatment Court.

“Judge Khalil, she saved my life,” said Fisher.

“It is saving people’s lives. And it’s an honor to be able to work in this capacity, and do what we’re doing to make a difference,” said Chief Judge Karen Khalil, the presiding judge of the Veterans Court at Redford’s 17th District Court.

It allows veterans to work together in an intensive 18-month to 2-year supervised program where probation and treatment experts work closely with Veterans Affairs to make sure the veterans have health care, housing, sobriety, and accountability.

“You might say in other settings in the court, well, ‘he was a drunk driver or he was a batterer, or he was a thief,’ but in this scenario you’re really just dealing with a person at a personal level,” said Judge Khalil.

If the veteran successfully completes the program, the charge may be dismissed, or probation could be shortened.

“We see a huge decrease in recidivism after participants go through this program,” said Judge Khalil.

By no means is the program easy. Judge Khalil says some veterans don’t make it through. But she uses tough love and compassion, and some challenge coins for those who go the extra mile to turn their lives around.

“Getting in trouble has been a blessing in disguise for them. Because it gives them the treatment that they need, the treatment that they’re entitled to,” said Judge Khalil.

Veterans facing misdemeanor crimes end up in the district court programs and those facing non-violent felonies can try to get into circuit court programs.

“Veterans court saved my life, definitely,” said U.S. Navy Veteran John Matelic.

Matelic says he spent years fighting addiction and mental illness. After a felony domestic violence arrest in 2018, veterans court gave him a lifeline.

“You earn the right not to go back to prison, because you’re showing that you can become a member of society again and do the right things,” said Matelic.

Matelic says getting sober and making it through the program was the hardest thing he’s ever done.

“Just to see the smile on my grandson’s face is worth it,” said Matelic.

“Sometimes you have to hit bottom before you can look up. And so we help them to turn their heads and look up,” said Judge Deborah Ann Thomas.

Judge Thomas started the Veterans Court for Wayne County Circuit Court. She says the team treatment approach works to heal the trauma and prevent future crime.

“Sometimes when they return the injury is not always physical. It can be emotional and psychological. I feel we have a duty, and that duty is to address those issues,” said Judge Thomas, who comes from a family of veterans.

Judge Noah P. Hood also runs one of Wayne County’s Veterans Court dockets. There are 27 Veterans Court programs in Michigan, and the state Supreme Court just awarded those 27 courts more than $1 million. Judge Hood says every penny is worth it.

“You can say ‘well, we’re paying now instead of paying later,’” said Judge Hood. “It doesn’t just serve our veterans, but also serves as a model we could potentially expand in the future, to make our courts across the board problem solving courts.”

As for Matelic and Fisher, their futures have become much brighter. Both are serving as mentors in the Veterans Courts. Matelic says he has reconnected with his children and has started a non-profit to support more mentorship for other veterans, or “battle buddies” as he calls them. Fisher and his new wife have a baby girl who turned one this month. Both say none of that would have been possible without Veterans Court.

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