TUPELO • Veterans facing felony charges in northeast Mississippi will soon have a way to straighten out their life and clear their record.
Officials in the First Circuit Court District are ready to start Veterans Court. The special branch will allow veterans charged with non-violent felonies to complete a four-phase program to have the charge wiped from their record.
“We are ready to start up immediately,” said Circuit Judge Kelly Mims, himself a 31-year veteran. “There are 14 drug court participants who are ready to be transferred over right now.”
In 2014, the state legislature expanded the law to allow veterans courts. The law was tweaked in 2019 to place it and drug courts under the umbrella of Intervention Court. The money to start and operate the new court will come through state Intervention Court funds. Mims will oversee Veterans Court, with the help of the other circuit court judges.
Veterans Court is open to anyone with recognized military service with anything less than a dishonorable discharge who has been charged with a non-violent felony.
“It can’t be a crime against another person or involve guns or trafficking,” Mims said. “Veterans get into trouble as everyone else, but the root cause could be different. It could be PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) or service issues.”
The first phase of the two-year minimum program usually begins while the veteran is still in jail. They are linked up with a counselor with the Department of Veterans Affairs. An integration and drug treatment program at the VA in Memphis will last up to eight weeks. Any PTSD treatment will follow.
Once they are released to the second phase, they will attend twice-monthly Veterans Court sessions and will be assigned a counselor/mentor that is a volunteer veteran. They will have to meet with the counselor weekly and at least one of those each month has to be face-to-face.
“They still have to call in daily and submit to random drug tests,” Mims said. “It is similar to drug court but a little more relaxed. In drug court, you’re not allowed to take any drugs, even prescriptions.
“In veterans court, we recognize that they might be on some type of psychotropic medication to treat the PTSD. We also allow some of the weekly meetings with the counselors to be over the phone.”
During the final two phases, the court meetings are less frequent as the participants begin the segue into a life on their own.
Veterans Court is a lot of work, but if the participant graduates the program, they will get an expungement order, erasing the felony charge from their record. If they fail to comply with the rules of Veterans Court anywhere along the way, Mims can sentence them to jail time on the original charge.
As the program gets going, Mims plans on spreading the word to civic and veterans groups hoping to recruit individuals, clubs and businesses to help.
“I hope to have some public partnerships to help the veterans get permanent employment,” Mims said. “We will also be looking for people willing to sponsor specific veterans.
“As part of court, the participants have to pay fees for things like monthly counseling, treatment and screenings. Those who have the ability to pay will be expected to pay. Those who can’t, we’ll try to find scholarships.”
An ideal partnership would be a veterans group willing to not only sponsor participants but also willing to provide its members as mentors.