Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm
Reporter – News Analyst
June 19, 2017 10:00 a.m.
It is a rainy, dreary summer day at the Robert M. Foster Justice Center in Yulee, FL. In a courtroom on the building’s third floor an expressionless young man in shackles and attired in an orange prisoner’s jumpsuit shuffles to the podium under the watchful eye of the bailiff. His head is down, enabling him to read the bold printed instructions: “When asked a question, reply Yes, Sir or No, Sir.”
Presiding in the Courtroom is Nassau County Judge Wesley R. Poole. The prisoner, whom we’ll call James, is being held in jail in lieu of $15,000 bond. He has no money for bail; he is homeless; he has no transportation. He appears to be estranged from his wife and children.
Judge Poole sums up James’ situation for the courtroom, which is filled with people representing various aspects of the judiciary and law enforcement.
Judge Poole addresses the prisoner with courtesy and concern. He suggests to James that he can offer him an alternative to jail, but that James will be required to commit to 12-24 months of individualized treatment, substance abuse tests and regular meetings. James must also consent to waive his right to a speedy trial.
James seems interested, indicating that he wants to get out of jail, but that he has no place to go and no way to get there. Judge Poole reassures him that if he agrees to the outlined conditions, these issues will be resolved within the next two weeks. Poole tells James, “Our goal is to get you out and into a course of treatment that will lead to your rehabilitation and gainful employment. We want to see you leading a productive life.” Judge Poole explains that if James commits to the program and successfully completes all phases, his arrest may be eligible to be sealed or expunged.
James and his attorney consult; Judge Poole asks whether such an agreement is acceptable to the state and the defense. It is. James signs the agreement in the presence of his attorney and is led back to jail with the promise that he will be brought back for the next step in his program in two weeks.
Why does James receive this exceptional treatment? He is a veteran who received an honorable discharge or general discharge under honorable conditions. He has a documented mental health diagnosis, including but not limited to, post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, and/or a substance abuse disorder. And there is an existing nexus between the offense or diagnosis and the military service. He has been charged with commission of a misdemeanor or low-grade felony.
There are many others in attendance in the courtroom, too, as James and other veterans or active duty military members look for alternatives to incarceration and living with criminal records. The team of people who are working to help the troubled vets includes representatives of the Nassau County Sheriff’s Office, the State’s Attorney, the Public Defender, Problem Solver for the 4th Circuit, the therapist, a VA representative, the mentor coordinator, and the mentors. These people meet in a staff session prior to court convening to discuss cases, problems and successes.
Welcome to Veterans Court in Nassau County.
People who are considered essential to the success of each struggling vet are the mentors, unpaid volunteers who have served in uniform, and who are willing to be a phone call away from a program participant who has encountered a problem. Unlike mentors in other programs, Veterans Court mentors are not expected to be intrusive in the lives of their mentees. Judge Poole emphasized that there are definitely boundaries that must be observed. Program participants are expected to contact their mentor if they cannot attend a scheduled meeting for any reason. It is then up to the mentor to notify Judge Poole or Veterans Services Officer John Martin to see if the problem can be resolved.
The Veterans Court was pioneered in the city of Buffalo, New York, in 2008-09. Since that time and in light of their success, other jurisdictions have adopted similar diversionary programs. Their handbook defines the role of mentor thusly:
“Mentors serve a variety of roles, including coach, facilitator, advisor, sponsor, and supporter. Mentors listen to the concerns and problems of participants and assist them in finding resolutions. They observe participants and work with them to help set goals and action plans. Mentors provide feedback to participants and highlight their successes. Most importantly, mentors act as a support for the veteran participant in a way that only other veterans can. The mentoring program thrives on the premise that behind every successful person, there is one elementary truth: somewhere, somehow, someone cared about their growth and development.”
A problem case
During the Veterans Court session held on June 16, 2017, Judge Poole dealt with five individual cases. James, as mentioned above, is a new enrollee. Three other veterans appeared to be well on their way to successfully completing their treatment programs. These three men walked with an air of confidence and seemed truly proud to be getting their lives back on track. One had just become grandfather to what he termed “a Green Beret in training.” Another veteran had graduated to the final phase in his program.
But then there was Peter (not his real name). Peter had progressed to Phase 4 of his program and then something happened. His random urine test came back with positive results, and he missed an appointment with his VA counselor.
Judge Poole asked, “What were you thinking? Your actions suggest you don’t care, that you would intentionally violate the terms of the program.”
Peter responded contritely that he had been working at a bar and drank half a glass of beer after work without thinking. Peter added that with all the rain, his hours at his regular job had been cut back and he needed money. He had taken a part time job in a bar to help out financially.
Judge Poole said, “So you missed your appointment with the VA because of rain and the cost of gas. Did you call your mentor to ask ‘What do I do?’ All of these people are here to help you. Why did you just let it happen?”
Peter replied, “I have no excuse.”
Judge Poole went on to explain that Peter is in Phase 4 of the program, which is designed to prevent relapse and deal with stress. “These two lapses concern me and the staff,” Poole said. “What type of sanction do you believe that they deserve?”
Peter mumbled, “Community service?”
Judge Poole said, “Jail is an option.”
John Martin, Peter’s mentor spoke up, suggesting that 20 hours of community service would be fitting.
Judge Poole ruled, saying, “I sentence you to 3 days in jail, but I will suspend that sentence provided that you perform 20 hours of community service within 30 days. I also want you to write something, an essay, explaining how you are feeling over what happened. Talk to the staff, and come back in a month.” The judge emphasized to Peter: “If you run into a situation, call for help from the support team.”
In talking about the session with John Martin after court, Martin explained that Peter could have called him to explain that he didn’t have gas money to get to his VA meeting. Martin would have found a way to get him there, and more importantly, such a call to his mentor would have underlined the seriousness with which Peter treated the problem.
After court adjourned
Judge Poole and John Martin spoke with me after court adjourned to advance my understanding of the Veterans Court. Although there is no mandate for such a diversion program for veterans, John Martin as the county’s Veterans Services Officer has been a strong proponent of such a program. Both Administrative Judge Robert Foster and County Judge Wesley Poole were also proponents, strongly supported by State Senator Aaron Bean and Tax Collector John Drew. Start-up funds were initially borrowed from the Duval County program until Nassau’s program could get funded.
Candidates for the program are identified during the intake process at the Nassau County Jail. Judge Poole acknowledged that in many cases it would be easier for the veteran to plead guilty to the offense than to live up to the requirements of the program. Those who enroll may be desperate to turn their lives around.
The first two graduates completed the program in a record 12 months, half the time allowed for completion. Judge Poole indicated that these men today carry themselves with an air of confidence and look completely different from the men who initially came before him. Martin added that the program was “life changing” for these men, who today are “truly a pleasure to be around.” Judge Poole agreed that many of the veterans who enter the program have lost their way, following a highly regimented, mission-focused life in the military. When they enroll in the program, they find a new mission: becoming productive members of civilian society. The many people working to help them succeed become their new combat team.
Judge Poole, an Air Force veteran, and John Martin, a Navy veteran, expressed a willingness to talk to any civic group about this program. They are eager to recruit mentors who have served in any branch of the armed services. They value military experience over any type of education or skill. Mentors receive brief training and will be assigned to a program participant shortly after volunteering.
Martin said that mentors are subject to background checks. Program participants are expected to contact their mentors once a week. Veterans Court is held at the Robert M. Foster Judicial Center on William Burgess Boulevard in Yulee, FL on alternate Fridays.
If you would like to be a mentor or refer a friend to be a mentor, please call John Martin (904) 548-4670 for more information.
“…to care for him who shall have borne the battle…”
Abraham Lincoln March 4, 1865
Editor’s Note: Suanne Z. Thamm is a native of Chautauqua County, NY, who moved to Fernandina Beach from Alexandria,VA, in 1994. As a long time city resident and city watcher, she provides interesting insight into the many issues that impact our city. We are grateful for Suanne’s many contributions to the Fernandina Observer.