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Knox, other area counties to apply for veterans court waiver

The Register-Mail - 12/17/2017

Dec. 17--GALESBURG -- While circuit courts are adding veterans treatment courts in 2018, the Ninth Judicial Circuit will be seeking a waiver.

The circuit is asking for a pass because of the lack of local veterans to fill a program, in addition to the added costs that an alternative court brings with it. The Ninth Circuit includes the counties of Knox, Warren, Henderson, Fulton, Hancock and McDonough.

A state law passed last year mandated the alternative program which allows veterans who were honorably discharged to enter a guilty plea to a crime in exchange for a probation sentence.

Probation would include frequent court visits and mental health or substance abuse treatment and the sentences could be expunged upon successful completion.

The circuit currently employs drug court as an alternative probation in the counties of Knox, Hancock, Fulton and McDonough, while Warren and Henderson counties continue to try to get their own program. An offender from Warren or Henderson counties can apply to the Knox program, but practically it would tough for someone to adhere to program demands while making the commute into Galesburg multiple times a week.

But the effort to get the Warren and Henderson drug court certified and up and running is still the plan, but it is not known when that might take place. Knox County drug court probation officer Leah Painter sees the idea behind the veterans court as a positive trend in the Land of Lincoln.

"With all the specialty courts going into effect, local courts will be able to help out more defendants for their different needs from mental health, veterans, family, DUI and drug courts," she said. "It also saves taxpayer money. Rather than put defendants in prison when speciality court can help them turn their lives around by giving them the extra attention on the things they need to work on. Our outlook on specialty courts is if we have changed one client's life and got them going down the right path we have done our jobs."

Chief Circuit Judge David Vancil Jr. said a waiver request was made through the administrative office.

"There is some cost involved with it, mostly it's time and personnel cost. Just like a drug court, if we were to put together a veterans court team, much like a drug court team, we might have six people put together and we might not even have six people in a veterans court," Vancil said, noting Rock Island County has also opted out.

"We feel that our veterans are being taken care of in our courts," he said. "If they have drug or alcohol problems we can solve that through a problem solving court like drug court ... (or) TASC or court supervision or first-offender drug probation, things like that that doesn't leave a veteran with a criminal record."

TASC stands for Treatment Alternatives for Safe Communities and is for nonviolent criminal defendants who have substance use disorders who receive probation with behavioral health treatment instead of prison or jail, according to its website.

Defendants who seek TASC undergo an assessment with their judge, probation officer, public defender, or private attorney. For drug court, a probation officer interviews potential clients who are nonviolent offenders and goes through an eligibility process that includes input from a judge and attorneys from both sides.

Both Vancil and Knox County Chief Public Defender David Hansen said veteran status is a mitigating factor in sentencing for a criminal defendant.

"I think if anyone deserves a second chance, it's someone that's served in the military honorably and helped protect the country and freedoms we all enjoy as Americans," said Hansen, who is a Marine Corps veteran.

Vancil also noted both circuit judges in Knox County are veterans: Paul Mangieri, Navy, and Scott Shipplett, Army.

"They're in tune with issues that might be facing veterans and I think they do a good job," Vancil said.

Hansen said he represents maybe a dozen veterans in a given year.

"Veterans are sometimes dealing with things unique to them related to their service such as PTSD and other mental health issues rather than what a normal person goes through," he said.

For Mangieri, he said he views military service similar to the terms and conditions a defendant must abide by while on probation.

"If an indidvual has been able to receive an honorable discharge from the military, a good part of his military service was following the directions and orders given to him. So if they can do it in that setting, then that's an attribute for him to be a good candidate to be able to do it when a judge orders them to do something," he said.

Overall, Vancil said mandating the court may make sense in Cook County or larger metropolitan areas than west-central Illinois where there are not enough clients "to justify those resources."

Mangieri called the pursuit of an alternative court for veterans specifically an enlightened step for the state.

"I think for many years a veteran was just left to their own or to the camaraderie to those in the American Legion or the VFW and that's fine," he said.

"But any time someone has some contact with the criminal justice system because of some type of criminal conduct, I think it's important to look at the underlying possible causes and if it's a veteran that's acting out so to speak, certainly I think we owe it to them to try to address that underlying cause that was only brought about by their willingness to serve."

rconnelly@register-mail.com; @RConnelly_

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(c)2017 The Register-Mail, Galesburg, Ill

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