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April 30, 2012

A second chance: Floyd County Veterans Court ‘not a free pass’

NEW ALBANY — For many veterans, coming home from an overseas deployment can be traumatic. Many face uncertainty, financial challenges and difficulty blending back into society.

Some turn to drugs or alcohol as a way to cope with the frustration and anxiety. And in many cases, that can lead to trouble.

In Floyd County, that might mean a ticket to Veterans Court, and a second chance. But the journey is not an easy one.

“It’s not a free pass; it’s tough,” said Floyd County Superior Court No. 3 Judge Maria Granger, who started planning the court last year and is the court’s administrator. “It’s a volunteer program and they have to admit to the crime and be honest. It’s not easy. They must follow through with treatment and some aren’t ready for that yet.”

The court was certified Jan. 9 and the first veteran to enroll was Feb. 27. Granger and her team of professionals meet weekly with those veterans, and she said it usually takes a year to complete the program.

Veterans Court’s mission is to treat veterans whose crimes stem from their struggles with substance abuse and mental health issues related to their combat experience. Granger said veterans deal with issues like post-traumatic stress disorder, brain injury and drug and alcohol abuse.

Those who commit violent crimes or other certain offenses will not be eligible. If the prosecutor and judge agree, the defendant is offered treatment in lieu of prison. If the program is completed successfully, the charges will be dropped or an alternative sentence imposed.

“The team determines eligibility based on criminal history, individual need and risk,” Granger said. “An important part of the treatment is mentoring. We have other veterans mentor participants. Many times, they are a familiar face and can relate to what the participant is going through.”

Granger said mentors have to complete a training program.

“We want them to feel comfortable and know how to handle themselves,” she said.

Floyd County Police Chief Ted Heavrin is a strong supporter of the program. He said he can relate to veterans who come home and try to fit back into society.

“I had a brother in Korea, a brother in World War II and another brother and myself were in Vietnam. The only counseling we came back to was alcohol before I got straightened out,” Heavrin said. “I think it’s a great program.”

And Heavrin said it’s no free pass.

“They have to follow the guidelines; Judge Granger makes them toe the line,” she said.

“We let the professionals tell us what direction we need to go in,” Granger said. “Then we see to it that they are following their treatment plan.”

Granger decided to start the program after seeing veterans — many of whom had been deployed multiple times — entering the court system.  

Floyd County is only the second county in Indiana with a Veterans Court. Porter County is the other and Vanderburgh County has one in the planning stages, according to the Indiana Judicial Center’s website.

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