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Veterans Court Provides Alternative to Jail Time

PULASKI COUNTY, Mo. -- When you commit a crime and end up in court, your life is now subject to the laws of the land. But, some judges across the nation and right here in the Ozarks soon realized that veterans suffering from post traumatic stress disorder or caught up in substance abuse were suffering again under the "one size fits all" punishment of state courts.
PULASKI COUNTY, Mo. -- When you commit a crime and end up in court, your life is now subject to the laws of the land. But, some judges across the nation and right here in the Ozarks soon realized that veterans suffering from post traumatic stress disorder or caught up in substance abuse were suffering again under the "one size fits all" punishment of state courts.

Pulaski County now has a Veterans Court designed to help local veterans.

These veterans served our country, but now face serving time. Judges across the country say these soldiers gave more when their country needed them, so if they are in trouble they deserve more.

53-year-old Army veteran Justin Barton was facing time behind bars after his third DWI.

"They offered me four years in prison," said Barton.

Barton's military service from '79 through '86 made him eligible for a court of a different kind.

"Then my lawyer heard about this Veterans Court and I took that route instead of going to prison," explained Barton.

"Basically what we do is they've served and given their service to the country and their issues may be a little bit different than what we normally experience,” says Pulaski County's Veterans Court founder Judge Colin Long. “So we're geared toward that on addressing those issues."

Veterans Courts are primarily focused on dealing with issues like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and substance abuse

"We see a lot of anger issues and we see a lot of anxiety issues and they just don't know why they're not the same as when they were, before they were deployed," said Long.

The program was founded in 2008 in Buffalo, New York and has since spread across the country, but is not in every state.

Missouri has five veterans’ courts. All focus on giving soldier’s mental health and substance abuse help something they wouldn't get in a regular court of law.

"That's all your dealing with in regular court is crime and punishment. Here in veteran’s court they're willing to help you through your problem," said Barton. "You have to stay sober. No alcohol. No illegal drugs."

Veterans are required to keep a job or do community service. The program lasts from 12 to 18 months.
"I feel a lot better about myself,” says Barton. “I see something that I want I'll go out and get it. You just have to look at yourself as, you can do whatever you want to do. You don't need alcohol or drugs to accomplish that."

The team that makes up Veterans Court includes the judge, the county prosecutor, a tracker (who checks on when the veteran is at work or at home and keeps them out of bars), and a person from the Veterans Administration and a probation officer.

Before each Veterans Court they discuss the participant’s progress.

"I think it was the support within the system,” says Barton. “I met a lot of people that thought I could do better in my life and that gave me the support that I needed.”

"Sometimes it may be the PTSD team we're coordinating services with or the addiction treatment program, sometimes it is pain management,” says Danielle Easter with the Veterans Administration travels from Jefferson City for Veterans Court.

Barton says the VA, this court and his team helped him beat alcohol addiction.

"Got treatment and help at the VA who just helped me through it," says Barton.

Each soldier also has a mentor like Darryl Ackery who has faced the similar obstacles.

"They're proud of their service, I'm proud of their service and they also trust me because they know with our prior service so we already have a bond as soon as we meet,” says Ackery. “That's the best thing. And people that are in the system they already understand what's happened and why they are here. And they want to correct things and that's what I've experienced in every case."

Barton says Veterans Court helped changed his life so instead of focusing on drinking he can focus on his family and best of all, his grand children.

"Well the 18 months I did made me open my eyes to a whole different outlook on my life, you know,” says Barton. “I could have a better life than sitting around drinking beer all day. Enjoying my grandkids and my kids."

Pulaski County's Veterans Court program has had only a handful of graduates, but is now working with its second class of potential graduates.

Judge Colin Long says this program can offer veterans in trouble a future where other options could mean a dead end.

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