September 2, 2014 at 1:00 am

Monroe County veteran's court gives second chance

Monroe— Justin Taft, an Army veteran who fought in the Iraq war, stood before a Monroe judge who sentenced him to a year in jail for assaulting a paramedic.

But Taft, 33, won’t have to spend any time in a cell if he successfully completes counseling and other requirements, such as avoiding additional legal issues and alcohol.

He is the first client of Veterans’ Treatment Court in Monroe County, a program designed to help treat veterans who get into trouble with the law.

“Our purpose here is to rehabilitate,” First District Judge Terrence Bronson told Taft. “It’s not a punishment court. We’re here to help you if you are willing to do this.”

“Yes, sir,” Taft responded quietly yet firmly.

With that recent initial hearing, Veterans’ Treatment Court officially began here. Held once a month in Judge Bronson’s courtroom, the court is designed to identify eligible veterans who have committed crimes and try to get them the help they need instead of putting them in jail.

Many veterans suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and other issues related to their time in the military. Their transition to civilian life can be marked with alcohol or drug abuse, which leads to other problems, including criminal activity. But the veterans’ court helps identify those problems and directs former servicemen and women toward the treatment and counseling they need.

“There are a lot of people who experienced trauma and nothing or very little had been done about it,” Bronson said. “Sometimes that trauma leads to encounters with the law. Do you punish that person or do you want to rehabilitate them? The bottom line is we want to try to treat it.”

Veterans’ Treatment Court involves staff from a variety of organizations, including circuit and district court probation, therapists, physicians, members of Veterans Affairs and law enforcement officials.

Ronald Benore is an eight-year Army veteran and a Monroe County assistant prosecutor.

He said the community needs a program like Veteran’s Court because those who have served the country deserve it.

“We owe it our veterans to try to help them,” Benore said. “They did something for us.”

The plan is to identify military veterans who are in the legal system to see if they qualify.

Local police, prosecutors and Jail Administrator Maj. Troy Goodnough work together to create a plan that will recognize veterans and see if they are willing to participate.

Most of those who qualify have committed crimes like drunken driving, assault or other misdemeanors, but even some who committed lower level felonies could qualify. Those accused of committing serious felonies, such as rape or murder, would not be eligible.

Each case would be treated individually and discussed among the representatives to create a plan of action for that person.

Melody Powers, veteran justice outreach coordinator, works with Veterans Affairs in Ann Arbor. She is participating in Monroe County’s program to help direct clients toward the treatment they need.

“I think a really good part of this program is partnering with the jail,” Powers said during a meeting before a court hearing. “That will help identify a lot of veterans.”

Taft is the first person to qualify for Veterans’ Treatment Court.

Originally from the Flint area, he was staying in Monroe and in June needed to be taken to Mercy Memorial Hospital. While he was in the emergency room, he punched a paramedic who was about to insert an IV into Taft’s arm.

Benore said Taft was not under the influence of alcohol or narcotics at the time of the assault. The paramedic was not seriously injured.