- Associated Press - Friday, November 27, 2015

JEFFERSONVILLE, Ind. (AP) - United States Marine Corps Sgt. Will King was sitting in the Clark County jail when he first heard about the Veterans Court program in Floyd County.

He had been through the court and probation systems before for DUIs, but Veterans Court would be his real chance to turn his life around.

King is one of roughly 50 Clark County veterans referred to the Floyd County Veterans Court in the past two years. Leaders from both counties, including Clark County Prosecutor Jeremy Mull and Floyd County Superior Court No. 3 Judge Maria Granger, announced the continued expansion and multicounty collaboration Tuesday.

“If it wasn’t for these people behind me, I wouldn’t be here today,” King said. “I’d either be in jail for a very long time or dead, and that was a realization I had to come to in order to get the help that I needed.”

Granger has presided over Veterans Court since its inception in 2011, and it was one of the first in Indiana. The program is aimed at helping veterans who get into trouble and have to go through the criminal justice system. So far, the court has received 415 referrals from Clark, Scott and Floyd counties combined, though not all of those referrals actually go through the program. Twelve veterans, including one from Clark County, have graduated from the program.

In order for the program to work, county judges, prosecutors and sheriffs have to be on the same page. That’s why Clark County Sheriff Jamey Noel said his plan is to have jail staff ask more specific questions of people being booked into the jail. The jail would then turn that information over to the Veterans Court to determine eligibility.

To be eligible, Granger said, a person must be a veteran of any of the military branches, must be going through the criminal justice system and there needs to be a connection between the crime and issues stemming from the veteran’s military service. Those issues can include post-traumatic stress disorder and substance abuse. If eligible, the veteran’s attorney, the judge and the prosecutor must agree to transfer the case from their county to the Veterans Court in Floyd County.

“I found that the public is best served and the community is best protected if we’re able to identify why people are committing crimes and get to that issue and solve that issue so that they don’t continue to do that,” Mull said. “The last thing I want as a prosecutor is a trained combat warrior in our community who’s out committing crimes and endangering the public as a result of issues they have from military service.”

Clark County Circuit Court No. 1 Judge Andrew Adams said the biggest player in making the Veterans Court program work is the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Specialists with VA’s Veterans Justice Outreach initiative identify veterans in the criminal justice system and, if necessary, personally meet with them while they’re in jail.

Outreach specialist Cristy Stivers said it can be an emotional moment when veterans realize they’re not alone.

“You know when they are in jail and feeling pretty forgotten and feeling left, they’re at a pretty major low in their life, (and) they’re finding that we care,” Stivers said. “It’s one of those moments, it’s pretty powerful. You see these big guys crying because they actually see someone is there and willing to help and do something different.”

Granger said reaching out to veterans is an obligation to serve those who “signed a blank check” for their country.

Granger knows the sacrifice well. Her military family lost a son to war, a sergeant and combat medic killed in action during Operation Iraqi Freedom.

“It is my honor and my privilege to work with the communities where I call home and to do what is right for our veterans,” Granger said.

Since graduating from the Veterans Court program, King has been promoted twice at work. He’s now a regional supervisor for a company that provides low-income consumers with phone service. He said he stopped drinking and now focuses on his family.

“It’s taken me to places I didn’t think I’d be at today,” he said.

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Source: News and Tribune, https://bit.ly/1HnO6ZK

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Information from: News and Tribune, Jeffersonville, Ind., https://www.newsandtribune.com

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