Judicial leaders push for more veterans treatment courts across Kansas

Titus Wu
Topeka Capital-Journal
Judge Timothy McCarthy, left, speaks with a graduate of a veterans treatment court program during a 2019 graduation ceremony. [screenshot]

For Chris Carter, an Iraq War veteran who coped with alcohol addiction and PTSD, his felony charge for driving under the influence could have meant being stuck in imprisonment.

Instead, he now owns his own business and has turned his life around.

"It saved my life. I'm not exaggerating when I say that. It saved my relationship with my kids, with my family," said Carter. "It saved me, it really did."

Carter was one of the first graduates of Johnson County's veterans treatment court, specialty courts designated to rehabilitate and treat veteran criminals dealing with mental or behavioral issues. The premise is instead of placing them in incarceration, treating those issues – and perhaps later expunging convictions or dismissing those charges – would be a more productive path. 

"For me, the huge benefit was being able to rebuild my life in a quicker manner as opposed to sitting out in the jail for a year, year and a half," Carter said.

That Johnson County court, started in 2016, is the only VTC in Kansas.

But state leaders, such as the chief justice of the Kansas Supreme Court, are trying to get the ball rolling so more can be established across the state. Legislation could be underway to give that effort a boost. Amid a pandemic, however, such goals will likely face obstacles.

Judge Timothy McCarthy played a major role in setting up Kansas' only VTC. When he started as a judge, he said nearly half of his cases dealt with substance abuse issues and a quarter with mental health issues. 

In response, he tried to establish an adult drug court, which links addicted offenders to drug treatment. But McCarthy said he received pushback from many who didn't think they deserved any special treatment.

When he decided then to explore the idea of a VTC, the feedback was the opposite.

"When all of a sudden I formed a separate committee for veterans, people were running up to me in the courthouse saying, 'Judge, I hear you're trying to start veterans treatment court, how can I help?'" said McCarthy. "I told our chief judge, we have to start veterans treatment court first, because everybody wants to get on board to help veterans, and then go back and pick up the other treatment courts later."

Pulling the resources together to start a VTC was an intensive process, the judge said, as it requires multiple parties, including prosecutors, defense attorneys, probation officers, mental health workers, the VA and mentors who are also veterans. Infrastructure is needed in doing routine drug and alcohol testing.

Financially, they had to rely on grants and volunteering before finding ways to make things more financially sustainable.

"I always have our county commissioners come over to the graduations, make them a part of this court. So now our grant ran out, and they're paying the salary of our court coordinator," McCarthy said.

Since it all started, Johnson County has seen at least 40 veterans graduate the program. It has shown success, as no graduate has come back to the criminal justice system, according to McCarthy.

The financial and resource obstacles Johnson County overcame, however, will be the same ones other judicial districts will need to deal with. Funding is a top concern, especially in a pandemic, said Wyandotte County Judge Renee Henry, who is looking at establishing a VTC.

Lawton Nuss, former chief justice of the Kansas Supreme Court, is working to address that. 

Federal legislation was passed last year, directing the the Department of Justice and the VA to work together to craft policies and procedures for providing money and training for states to develop VTC programs. But since then, funding from Congress hasn't been there, said Nuss.

He's been appealing to U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kansas, and others, and Nuss said that the senator last week was putting together a subcommittee that would craft a proposal for funding.

"I fully understand that Washington D.C. has higher priorities right now than to worry about getting adequate funding for VTCs nationwide, but we're still pushing for that," said Nuss.

On the state level, Supreme Court Chief Justice Marla Luckert is backing recommended legislation from the Kansas Criminal Justice Reform Commission that would create a specialty court funding advisory committee. That group would secure and allocate grants and resources for specialty courts, including VTCs.

State Rep. Stephen Owens, R-Hesston, who is also part of the commission, said he has been in conversation with colleagues to see if they would be interested in filing a bill when the next legislative session starts January. 

"One way or another, I am confident it will be introduced," he said.

However, he anticipates the biggest obstacle for the bill passing to be, once again, COVID-19.

"I don't believe there is a single legislator that doesn't want each and every veteran to receive the services they need if they become involved in the criminal justice system," said Owens. "What I feel will be the challenge is the current $150 million budget shortfall we are currently facing."

Despite the pandemic, advocates say that VTCs can work out without that much additional funding. Especially for districts where there are already specialty courts, one can use existing systems and have certain folks take on a little bit more work to make a VTC possible.

Another barrier cited is that many, especially out in rural Kansas, are not near or accessible to VAs or centers where mental health services can be provided. But many point to telehealth as a solution, something that has become more common in the pandemic.

One last front is potential opposition from those who lean into the argument of public safety and question why anyone charged should get special treatment.

Recommended legislation from the commission includes granting those who complete a specialty courts program the ability to petition for expungement of a conviction or arrest records upon completion. Currently, one may need to wait up to three years after probation to go back and expunge the charge, said McCarthy.

The other track for those participating in a specialty courts program is a pre-conviction diversion path, where charges are dismissed or lessened.

Sedgwick County District Attorney Marc Bennett, who chairs the commission, thinks opposition along those lines won't be much of an issue. 

"I could see little opposition to this as applied to misdemeanor allegations, low level (severity level 5) drug felonies and low level property crime felonies – again, assuming the person completed a robust treatment program," said Bennett. "I could see concerns being raised for immediate expungement  for more serious crimes."

Carter also noted that going through the program himself wasn't necessarily an easy thing.

"There are sometimes the impression from people out there that this is a get-out-of-jail-free card," he said. "They get their schedules full up front, are expected to check in with the veterans justice outreach coordinator. You're expected to check in with your probation officer. You've got to come to court, twice a month. You're doing your analysis tests three, four times a week; you're going to then also your treatment plan that's been prescribed to you. You're going to your therapy sessions. You're doing therapy that a lot of these veterans have put off because it's painful to do." 

Regardless, any special treatment that veterans can get is deserved, Bennett said, given that the mental health or drug issues veterans go through are a result of them serving the country.

"Do we, as a society, not owe them every opportunity we can do to help them overcome that?" said Bennett. "I think that's a narrative that is bipartisan, and I think it's something that citizens are very supportive of."