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Cumberland and Harnett counties vie to become site of state's first court for military veterans

Fayetteville Observer (NC) - 8/30/2013

Aug. 30--Harnett County may surpass Cumberland County in opening North Carolina's first court for military veterans.

Cumberland County, which has about four times as many veterans as Harnett County's 10,900, has been trying to establish a veterans court for about four years.

Last year, the county sent a contingent of 10 officials to San Jose, Calif., for a weeklong conference on how to establish and operate a veterans court.

That journey was expected to be the final obstacle before the county was awarded a $200,000 federal grant to establish the court, which would be patterned after others in the country to help veterans who run afoul of the law.

But the grant was denied, so the county tried again.

Beth Keever, chief District Court judge for Cumberland County, said Tuesday that she expects to hear within the next month whether the county's second application for a federal grant to start the court is approved.

"We certainly want to be first" with a veterans court, Keever said, "but we also want to see the veterans served, so we'd like to see a veterans court in every county that has a high military population."

While Cumberland County awaits word on a federal grant, Harnett County awaits word on a state grant.

Aymie Huntington, the project manager for setting up the court in Harnett County, said Thursday at a Veterans Affairs summit in Fayetteville that the county's chief district court judge and district attorney are on board. They've all visited the country's first veterans court, in Buffalo, N.Y., to learn firsthand how the system might work.

Huntington said it's too soon to put a specific date on the first day the court will operate, but it could begin soon if a grant to pay the salary of a court coordinator is approved by the state. Huntington would not reveal the amount of grant money Harnett County is seeking.

A veterans court aims to help former service members return to a productive life instead of locking them up for minor offenses that are often related to mental health problems or drug or alcohol abuse.

"What we want to do is, instead of putting these vets in jail, let's put them in treatment," Huntington said. "We'll get them back up on their feet."

Keever said Cumberland County chose to apply for federal money instead of a state grant because the guidelines seemed to be a better fit, and it's not common to apply for two separate grants for the same project.

Veterans courts already operate in at least 28 other states, but not in North Carolina, home to almost 750,000 veterans.

Pennsylvania has calculated that the rate of veterans who end up back in court after graduating from one of their veterans courts is about 1 percent.

Huntington said that in Harnett County, veterans would have to plead guilty to charges, then be referred to the veterans court instead of traditional probation. The court would help the veteran find treatment for mental health or substance-abuse problems, as well as financial services or housing, depending on each case. Every veteran also would be assigned a volunteer mentor with prior military service. Graduation from the program would take 18 months to two years and result in charges being dropped or significantly reduced, Huntington said.

Veterans with bad conduct or dishonorable discharges won't be eligible for the court, nor will those with felony charges.

Cumberland County would have similar rules, but nonviolent felony offenders could qualify.

After Harnett County's court is established, plans call for another veterans court in Lee County, which, like Harnett, is in the state's 11th district.

In Harnett County, at least 76 veterans came through the District Court between March and June, and all but nine would have been eligible for veterans court, Huntington said.

The statistics come from anonymous surveys completed at the courthouse, and the real figure is probably higher, she said.

Last year, Cumberland County determined that out of 70 so-called "frequent fliers" who were in its jail at least five times in the prior year because of mental health issues, more than a third were veterans.

"We have a number of veterans that are involved with the criminal justice system and have significant issues," Keever said. "I was talking this morning to (Superior Court Judge Mary Ann Tally) about someone she had in her court she would like to send to a veterans court: A veteran who has PTSD issues which led to substance-abuse issues which led to felony criminal offenses. The option she was offered was simply to send him to prison, and I don't really think that is what should happen under the circumstances."

Staff writer John Ramsey can be reached at ramseyj@fayobserver.com or 486-3574.

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(c)2013 The Fayetteville Observer (Fayetteville, N.C.)

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