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McLean County veterans progress through treatment court program
Pantagraph - 2/25/2021
Feb. 25—BLOOMINGTON — Judge Charles Feeney cracked some smiles, gave an applause, and laughs filled a courtroom while he was chatting with a defendant who was entering his guilty plea to a traffic charge.
Feeney, of the 11th Judicial Circuit Court, is the presiding judge of the McLean County Veterans Treatment Court.
The program provides assistance to veterans with criminal offenses for trauma, mental health and substance abuse across the 11th Judicial Circuit, which includes Ford, Livingston, Logan, McLean and Woodford counties.
After starting in 2018 under an amended state law, the VTC program is "starting to see the graduations," said Del Saam, veterans mentor coordinator.
Two participants, David Watson and Ben Mojica, graduated from the program this week, ending a string of six graduations since January.
"I don't think we've ever had that much graduating in that short period of time," said Feeney.
The program has had 46 participants, 14 of whom are currently involved. With 27 successful graduates, the program's graduation rate is 83%.
The VTC is unique compared to other problem-solving courts in several ways, including allowing defendants to erase their criminal record once graduated.
In addition to assigning a probation officer, participants are assigned a veteran mentor who makes weekly contact with the defendant about whatever help they need.
"That mentor has been in the military, that's where he really comes in and helps out with being able to talk about other military experience, help them open up," Saam said.
Many people working in the program are also veterans, including Feeney, who served as a judge advocate general in the Marine Corps and another 20 years in the reserves.
Feeney said it's important that many veterans help run the program because it builds trust with defendants.
"We hear that repeatedly with some of our graduates of how shocked they are about how we're dealing with them because they don't trust us. They don't trust the court, they think they're just going to be hammered all the time and we're just mean people and they don't realize how devoted we are to their success," said Feeney.
The court also assists defendants with receiving Veterans Affairs benefits such as health care, disability, substance use help, vocational training and others.
Veterans tend to complete the program within two years and the age of participants range from early 20s to 80s.
During Tuesday's graduation, Feeney said the court is looking for more clients.
"We're not looking for veterans to get in trouble, but we're looking for more people to be in our program because we know they're out there and we want to help them," said Feeney.
Graduates received a quilt, several certificates, and a coin that contains the VTC's motto on one side: "No one is left behind." When handing the coin to one of the graduates Tuesday, Feeney explained a meaning for why they take that motto "very seriously."
"This program is not born out of the desire to give unmerited grace to a group of people that commit crime in the community," Feeney said. "This program is aiming at veterans who have a treatment need and this program is born out of the recognition that we, as a society of protected people at the hands of the veterans, owe a debt of gratitude to those veterans."
The Illinois Legislature amended the Veterans and Servicemembers Court Treatment act in 2016 to a mandate for all circuit courts to participate, which then-Sen. Bill Brady, R-Bloomington, was in favor of.
Former Logan County Clerk and now Sen. Sally Turner, R-Beason, who replaced Brady after he resigned from the state Senate last year, commended the rollout of the VTC.
"This program has benefited many veterans in our counties," Turner said in a statement. "We are hopeful it continues to dramatically decrease risks of recidivism and address mental health and substance abuse issues that they may be experiencing."
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