Special Wayne County court gives veterans a 2nd chance

Oralandar Brand-Williams
The Detroit News
3rd Circuit Court Judges Deborah Thomas and Ulysses Boykin oversee the graduation ceremony at the Wayne County Veterans Treatment Court at the Frank Murphy Hall of Justice in Detroit Wednesday.

It was graduation day in the courtroom of Judge Deborah Thomas.

Five local military veterans received certificates Wednesday for completing a two-year diversionary program through the Wayne County Veterans Treatment Court and encouraged to take advantage of their "second chance." 

Thomas' courtroom was filled with well-wishers and family members there to cheer the men on to success. "I'm just so proud of all of you," the judge told the graduates.

Mark Sawyer holds up his diploma at the Wayne County's Veterans Treatment Court after the graduation ceremony at Frank Murphy Hall of Justice in Detroit on April 3, 2019.

She had an individual message for each of them, telling one, "It's been a challenging journey but we made it through" while telling another, "You gave it your all."

Graduate Mark Sawyer, a Marine veteran, said the program has been a tremendous help.

"It's great," he said. "It gives people a second chance. They put you through a lot of hoops when you first get into the program. It's worth it."

Thomas started the program in Wayne County six years ago after, she says, seeing a lot of veterans coming into her courtroom for offenses stemming from self-medication and post-traumatic stress disorder. Some also were suffering from mental illness and other personal problems.

Through the veterans court, the veterans get mental health counseling, drug screening and treatment, and other services to help them with daily living. The program is open to offenders with no violent criminal history. The veterans also must have an honorable discharge from the military.

The program is one of 27 specialty courts for veterans in Michigan.

Thomas was joined at the celebration by Chief Third Circuit Court Judge Timothy Kenny and Judge Ulysses Boykin, who began working with her in the Third Circuit Court's Veterans Court two years ago.

Like Thomas, Boykin comes from a long line of military veterans, including his great-grandfather, Johnson Whittaker, one of the first African American cadets to graduate from West Point.

Boykin, who served as an officer in the U.S. Army, told the graduates that the program is "extremely worthwhile (and) not just for the veterans but also to the community."

Program participants are required to meet with the judge and court staff at least once a week. They are tested for drugs and alcohol once a week during the first phase of the program.

Thomas said the program is open to veterans who have offenses such as driving under the influence, some weapons violations and other lesser criminal offenses.

The Third Circuit Court's veterans court has helped more than 100 veterans in the past six years, said Thomas.

"Everyone's treatment plan is different,"she said.

Kenny told the crowd the specialty court programs like Veterans Court are "vehicles that help restore lives ... help people get back on the right track. They're well worth it."


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