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Norman Transcript: Solving the problem of U.S. veterans in the justice system

January 31, 2016
News Stories

Norman Transcript - Mack Burke & Jessica Bruha

For years, District Judge Lori Walkley has worked with others on a program helping veterans before their issues become legal problems.

Cleveland County is running a kind of veterans court in the drug court with some help from grant money, but Walkley said it needs to be a stand-alone program.

“Drug court participants are different than veterans,” Walkley said.

Drug court works for drug offenders because it’s a program with their peers. The average age of first drug use for most drug court participants is 13 or 14. The average age of first drug use for a veteran is 20, she said.

“And veterans are usually people who have a skill set and are used to being very vital. So it’s really hard to say, ‘These are your peers,’” Walkley said. “And, with veterans, I think you need a mentor program, which I think is a component I would love to have.”

Substance abuse issues are often tied to PTSD issues with veterans.

“It’s a chicken in the egg,” Walkley said. “Am I using (alcohol) to dull a PTSD issue or do I have a substance abuse problem, which is creating that health issue.”

While Oklahoma and Tulsa counties already have drug court programs, Walkley said what she would like to build in Cleveland County is modeled more off a program in Buffalo, New York.

A man there kept going to the court and Veterans Affairs for help but wasn’t receiving any.

“He couldn’t get help, and couldn’t get help, and he’s not in the court system, so the court can’t help him. So finally he brings a gun, does something that gets him arrested and is, like, ‘Now will you finally help me?’” Walkley said.

They had all service providers who they would have for Veterans Court go in about an hour before court and be available for anyone. 

“It could just be someone who comes in and says we have a crisis, he has not been arrested, so someone help me, and there’s people there to help them,” she said. “So that’s the goal. Let’s catch them before we get to this point.”

The Oklahoma County program is a non-prosecution agreement that basically says, if you graduate from the program you don’t get prosecuted.

“All that happens if they flunk out of that is, then the DA goes forward with prosecution,” Walkley said. “I want to create — you agree to do these things and, if so, it gets dismissed. If not, then here’s your sentence. We’ve already decided it up front. That has a little more teeth to it.”

Walkley said for everyone, veterans in particular, knowing where the lines are is useful.

Other components the judge would like to see is a mentoring aspect and community service.

“It’s a big deal if you’ve got a base of people willing to be mentors,” she said.

As far as community service goes, one of the reasons she uses it is because it’s the only thing that stays in the community. If she sentences them to DOC or jail, that’s money going out, but community service stays here. But there’s also another reason she uses it.

“They’re soldiers, they fought for their country, they have skill sets and, suddenly, they’re not useful anymore,” Walkley said. “I use it a lot because it helps them feel useful again. If they feel like they have a task, to me, that’s part of their recovery.”

The program also would have a re-entry into the community component to help keep veterans out of the system.

While Walkley has researched and created a program, the only issue now is funding. To run it would require manpower and treatment money.

It would require the time of an assistant district attorney and judicial time, but Walkley said judges would carve out the time for it. There is also a supervision aspect, depending on rules and conditions, whether it’s a felony or misdemeanor and veterans having case management needs.

“The manpower cost alone, you’re probably talking $75,000 to $100,000 a year to run the program,” Walkley said. “It would make sense to run it at probably a three-year pilot, so you’re talking quarter of a million dollars. That’s a lot of money.”

Drug tests, evaluations and therapy also cost money, but the VA could service a lot of those, she said, which leads into another issue.

“The reason we need veterans treated a little differently, other than the obvious (we kinda owe it to them), is that it’s a resource allocation issue,” Walkley said.

If there is a veteran in Central Oklahoma Community Mental Health, then the non-veteran doesn’t have space there. That slot is taken. If the veteran can go to the VA, it opens a slot for a non-veteran.

“If we’re allocating our resources more appropriately, then we serve more people,” she said.

Walkley said the best way to help would be to notify her of any grants or grant writers, or start a pilot program.

Julia Curry, with the Oklahoma Court System, said another way to help might be to volunteer with Veterans’ Corner until they are able to pull everything together. Curry has been helping create a Veterans Court with Walkley for several years.

Big picture

Some veterans end up in the justice system, but others struggle to find the care they need on the outside.

Rep. Tom Cole, R-Moore, said funding for veterans programs has never been an issue.

“This is an area where Democrats and Republicans actually work well together,” he said. “When Bush was president, we increased veterans funds by almost 100 percent in eight years. We’re on track to do the same thing with President Obama. Whether Republicans have dominated or Democrats, each side has been willing to write the check.”

He said what happens with that money is the problem.

“The agency has just not gotten the job done,” he said. “There have not been enough people held accountable. Congress gave the Secretary of Veterans Affairs more power than any other secretary to hire and fire, and we just don’t seem to see enough change in the culture …”

“If you’ve gotten somebody lying about waiting lists, fire them. Don’t give them a bonus … Maybe you can’t fire your way to excellence, but maybe you could fire enough people that people would start performing and start being honest. We ought to be giving bonuses to whistle blowers, not people who aren’t getting the job done.”

Cole said despite macro problems, many veterans receive great care. He said his father received great care in Moore and Norman.

“There are a lot of good people doing good work, but when you have wait lines like we have, when you have misreporting of information, where they’re telling us one thing to collect a bonus and we find out about it, there’s a cultural problem nationally inside the VA organization,” he said.

Cole said Congress put together the Veterans Choice Act to address gaps in care. He believes it’s a move in the right direction.

“We tried to make it to where veterans would get a card, and if they couldn’t get an appointment or a (VA facility) was too far away, you could use local health care,” Cole said. “That’s actually where we need to go, I think. It’s a concern. Congress has been willing to give everything the VA has asked. There’s just no excuse for people falling through the cracks.

We spend more money on our veterans in the United States than every other country in the world combined … That’s because the American people want it to happen. They deserve a lot better than what they’re getting back.”

Oklahoma’s 4th District is home to four veterans homes: Ardmore, Lawton, Norman and Sulphur.

“Most veterans aren’t living in veterans homes, though,” Cole said. “The biggest single focus is either the lack of or inadequate care and what we can do to structurally reform the system so that it delivers better. Congress is willing to write the check, and that’s what’s so frustrating … We’re just not getting the bang for the buck.”

For those working within the Department of Veterans Affairs, their is a systematic challenge to finding those in need.

Oklahoma Department of Veterans Affairs Program Director Shane Faulkner said the biggest problem is getting people in the system.

“That’s the roadblock we run into,” he said. “So many veterans are returning home and they don’t want to file a claim because they say there’s nothing wrong with me, or that guy needs it more than I do.”

Even with their help, many veterans feel the process could be a little smoother and a lot faster.

WWII veteran Dale Higgins said he has been waiting for a hearing aid for nearly two years. 

Veteran Mike Sloniker said he struggled to get medical care he needed after a cancer diagnosis. Sloniker said the VA finally provided him with care, but the hoops he had to jump through were discouraging.

Rep. Claudia Griffith, D-Norman, said veterans are falling through the cracks. She has crafted a new bill, based on study session findings, that aims to improve health care planning and implementation for veterans. It’s not comprehensive, but she said where you see a problem, you have to try to solve it.

“I have been involved with the veterans centers because we have one here in Norman” she said. “And there have been some issues there that have made me concerned. I’m also married to a veteran. My father was a veteran and, in all honesty, if you are a spouse or a family member, you are a veteran also. If someone in your family goes through a tour of duty, everyone’s involved.”

She said it’s not hard to see a relationship between a declining state budget and gaps in care.

In the end, Cole said the House and Senate are looking at big-picture solutions, but for the moment, he said he doesn’t think all of the problems can be solved in the short term.

“Long term, we may want to look into a system — and there’s a lot of debate on this — where veterans can access local health care with a card and those hospitals can get compensated,” Cole said. “The VA may be too big and too bulky to manage, other than centers of excellence that are focused on certain kinds of ailments (PTSD, burns, etc.) Let them make the choice and let the dollars follow where the veteran wants to go.”

Online: Norman Transcript