New veterans court offers path to recovery

Billings Gazette

A shocking proportion of Yellowstone County felony DUI offenders are U.S. military veterans. Parole officers have reported that up to 30 percent of their caseloads have been military veterans.

At least five U.S. veterans have been in the DUI treatment courts Judge Mary Jane Knisely launched in Billings Municipal Court and in Yellowstone County District Court. Knisely is ready to expand the 5-month-old District Court program to add a track just for U.S. military veterans.

The move makes a lot of sense. Because of their service, military veterans suffer high rates of traumatic brain injury, post traumatic stress disorder and other conditions less common in the civilian population. The Department of Veterans Affairs can provide treatment for those conditions, as well as for chemical dependencies and other mental illnesses. However, veterans who need those services most desperately often don’t seek them.

The Veterans Treatment Court would connect needy veterans with the VA and community services.

In a recent interview, Knisely said the Yellowstone County team, already working with 35 offenders in alcohol-related driving cases, is ready to work with any veterans.

“I think we can start up immediately,” Knisely said. “If we get a referral, we will take them. We don’t want to wait.”

Three military veterans have already graduated from that impaired driving court this year, having started their treatment through the Municipal Court.

With a track specifically for veterans, Knisely hopes more veterans can be served, and not just those arrested for impaired driving.

Billings attorney Kelly Gallinger, a National Guard veteran, worked many hours on the grant application, Knisely said. That application is supported by letters from local probation and parole officers, the Yellowstone County Bar, the Office of Montana Supreme Court Administrator, National Alliance on Mental Illness-Montana, VA Montana Director Robin Korogi, Yellowstone County Attorney Scott Twito, and U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, a member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee.

“This program will divert nonviolent offenders with serious mental illnesses and/or substance abuse issues away from jail and into alternative prosecution, sentencing and appropriate community programs,” said Matt Kuntz, executive director for NAMI-Montana.

“Often these disorders are first diagnosed as a result of a soldier/veterans’ abuse of drugs and alcohol to self-medicate, which leads to encounters with the criminal justice system that would not have occurred absent a service-related injury,” Tester wrote.

In an interview with The Gazette from Fort Harrison, Korogi noted that veteran treatment courts in Missoula and Billings are starting as the VA is expanding behavioral health services. A newly constructed inpatient facility at Fort Harrison near Helena is scheduled to start accepting chemical dependency and PTSD patients on July 5.

Outpatient treatment for chemical dependency, PTSD and other mental health care is available at the Billings VA clinic at King Avenue and 24th Street West.

The Yellowstone County District Court has applied for a grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration to cover the costs of a Veterans Treatment Court coordinator as well as to cover services that participants need that cannot be provided by the VA.

The grant will allow the court to serve veterans who volunteer for this chance to avoid jail by getting treatment, a job and a place to live.

The strength of the Veterans Treatment Court is the broad support it has generated. The entire community will benefit as veterans connect with needed services and fewer addicted and ill folks sit in jail.

Congratulations to the many people and organizations starting the Veterans Treatment Court in Billings.