Judges Henry Newkirk (left) and Reuben Green. Judges Henry Newkirk (left) and Reuben Green. (Photos: John Disney/ALM)

Veterans Day comes with appropriate pomp and circumstance, such as parades or ceremonies at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

Much less heralded are veterans courts where former members of the military with legal trouble can receive treatment for substance abuse and mental health problems while avoiding serious criminal charges.

Georgia has 15 such courts among more than 150 accountability courts championed by outgoing Gov. Nathan Deal to reduce recidivism and prison costs by breaking the cycle of addiction and mental illness that can spawn crime.

Judge Reuben Green of Cobb County Superior Court, who has presided over that county’s veterans court since 2014, sees the program as giving second chances to people who served their country.

“Morally we should do that,” says Green, who served in the Marine Corps. But he also notes the state saves $5,000 for each participant diverted from jail or prison by an accountability court, as reported by the Council of Accountability Courts of Georgia.

A recent study of Georgia veterans courts by Applied Research Services showed that, of 890 defendants referred to the programs from October 2014 to September 2017, 529 enrolled in them, and 51 percent graduated.

Such success is encouraging, but Green and Superior Court Judge Henry Newkirk, who presides over Fulton County’s veterans court, say there are numerous challenges to the programs.

Newkirk says the biggest obstacle is “changing their brains,” referring to the physical effects of methamphetamine, cocaine, heroin and other drugs on defendants. “It’s not easy.”

He sighs when telling of one graduate of his program who subsequently was arrested for breaking into a bar to steal liquor. “He did really well” in treatment, he says.

Green refers to some defendants’ “criminal thinking” and ”warrior mentality” as barriers to accepting help. For example, he said, the judge will refer a participant to a Veterans Affairs hospital for treatment, but he’ll deny having any symptoms of mental illness or substance abuse. (Tests for drugs can come back clean, if the participant was in jail for a period of time.)

Given backlogs at VA hospitals, Green said not being fully honest leads to a 60- to 90-day delay in starting treatment.

Another challenge is public transportation in Cobb County, Green says. Many defendants don’t have access to cars and often have to take multiple buses, over two to three hours, to get to VA hospitals.

Green says mentors—veterans who volunteer to regularly meet with participants, check in on them and hold them accountable to meeting treatment goals—are critical to the success. They establish a “battle buddy” relationship, he says.

Newkirk agrees that mentors make a big difference but conceded “we don’t have enough.”

Beyond the challenges, Green says the courts can be very rewarding. He recalls a graduate’s father who told the judge, “I have my son back.”