Two days before Thanksgiving, a man named Bill talked about his holiday plans in a room filled with about 20 people. He and his girlfriend were celebrating the day at Canyon Lake Resort. He was going to change the oil in his truck and eventually shampoo the carpet at home.
He talked about suffering from lower-back pain and how he enjoyed watching the fish in his fish tank. He has been sober for 68 days, he said. The roomful of people stood up and clapped.
Bill, a former Marine who didn’t provide his last name, is one of 11 participants in Pennington County Veterans Court. Established in March 2016, the court is an intensive probationary program for military veterans who have been convicted and sentenced of felonies in the county.
The program gives participants “one last chance” to get the help they need to avoid prison, said Veterans Court presiding judge, Todd Hyronimus.
The nation’s first Veterans Court was established in Buffalo, N.Y., in 2008 to respond to the issues veterans often face, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, brain trauma and chemical dependency.
Probation for veteran offenders
The local program is run by a team of 13 people — eight of them veterans — who help participants get treatment for alcohol abuse, drug addiction and/or mental health problems. The staff can also assist them get a job, stable housing and basic necessities like gas and groceries so they can focus on fulfilling their probationary requirements.
Sometimes, supervisors even tell participants who they can’t hang out with, such as people who enable their criminal behavior.
Besides having a probation officer, participants are paired with a veteran mentor who helps them readjust to civilian life and navigate the court, treatment and Department of Veterans Affairs, according to the court’s brochure. The mentor, a volunteer who generally sees the participant once a week, serves the combined roles of guide, advocate, counselor, role model and coach.
“We call them battle buddies,” Hyronimus said in an interview with three other team members after court on Tuesday. “We found that veterans relate better to other veterans.”
Participants are also assigned a law enforcement officer — either from the county Sheriff’s Office or Rapid City Police Department — who can provide both supervision and moral support. Before they can graduate from the program, participants are required to put in 40 hours of community service and be sober for a certain period.
Especially on holidays, like this past Thanksgiving, supervisors want to know about their plans to steer them away from pitfalls.
“Most of the participants that we have in our court are potentially on their way to a penitentiary sentence,” Hyronimus said. “Basically, just do everything that we can to get them back on a stable path so they can become law abiding, tax-paying citizens.”
The court produced its first graduate in August, and the following month was recognized by the South Dakota Association of County Commissioners with an achievement award “for valuable innovations and improvements in county government.” The association picks only one awardee and one runner-up each year, as it has done since 2001, said its deputy director Kristie Jacobsen.
Three more are expected to graduate in January. The program, comprised of multiple phases, takes about 18 months to complete, said Mandy Enders, the Veterans Court probation officer and a former member of the Air Force.
Any veteran of the U.S. Armed Forces — no matter their manner of discharge — can sign up for Veterans Court if they’re affected by a substance abuse or mental health disorder. A designated prosecutor from the Pennington County State’s Attorney’s Office then screens and picks participants, said court coordinator Ashlee Cook.
The 11 currently on board come from the Air Force, Army, Marines and Navy. Most have been found guilty of felony-level drunk driving or drug possession offenses. The program doesn’t accept people involved in sex offenses or highly violent crimes, such as murder.
The court convenes every two weeks at 10 a.m. on Thursdays at the Pennington County Courthouse. In January, their biweekly meetings will be moved to 2:30 p.m. Tuesdays. The meetings are open to the public.
Daily challenges and setbacks
During court on Tuesday, a former Airman named Jessica was the last of three participants to speak. In an emotional voice filled with self-recrimination, she talked about chancing upon a bottle of the painkiller Oxycodone while cleaning her home recently.
“I woke up in a lot of pain, and I decided to use it,” Jessica told Hyronimus, who was seated on the bench, cloaked in a black robe. She didn’t tell her supervisors about the probation violation until she tested positive in a regular drug test. She ended up in jail for a day.
“We’ve been down this road before,” the judge said before ordering her to four days of house arrest and attending two Narcotics Anonymous meetings instead of one. He also asked her to write an essay on what led her to take the pills, and how she can prevent it from happening again.
After most of the people had cleared out of the courtroom, Jessica began crying while discussing her violation with Enders, the probation officer.
“It’s a temporary setback,” Enders said before offering the woman a hug.