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A look inside a Milwaukee court that helps veterans

Judge Carolina Stark currently oversees Veterans Treatment Court in Milwaukee County with a docket of a few dozen participants.
Courtesy of Judge Carolina Stark
Judge Carolina Stark currently oversees Veterans Treatment Court in Milwaukee County with a docket of a few dozen participants.

There’s a special court in Milwaukee’s justice system. It’s called Veterans Treatment Court. Since 2012, it’s been a place where veterans accused of crimes can resolve their cases with rehabilitation in mind.

When you walk into Veterans Treatment Court, you’ll likely notice the array of colorful military flags behind the judge. In addition to the American flag and the Wisconsin state flag, flags for the army, navy, air force, and more proudly jut out from the wall.

It’s not the only thing that makes this court distinct. Andy has a case here right now. He served in the US Air Force for six years. He, unfortunately, had a run in with the law that he’s not proud of. “I was arrested for DUI,” he says.

Because of the intensity of their service and trauma associated with it, military veterans can be at a higher risk for challenges. That includes facing things like substance abuse disorders, mental health diagnoses, suicide, and episodes of domestic violence.

Extended conversation with Milwaukee County Circuit Judge Carolina Stark.

Andy has been in court before, the “regular” kind that focuses on litigation and punishment. And he noticed a big difference in this one. “Well, I think the depth with which veterans are given treatment options. I think just the sheer fact that I've seen this particular one judge more times than I have ever seen any other judge before,” says Andy. “I think combined that with just the emphasis on the resources that are available.”

Judge Carolina Stark currently presides over this court. Her father is a military veteran, and the experience means a lot to her. Because her docket ranges from only about 25 to 40 people, she says she can really be there for the vets.

“There’s a lot of sharing of information about are they attending treatment, are they engaging in treatment, weekly drug testing, sometimes multiple times per week, and those drug test results, just a lot of sharing of information,” says Judge Stark. “And the judge really engaging in every hearing directly with the participant.”

Judge Stark robustly compliments participants when they’ve done something right, like making appointments or testing negative for drugs, asking everyone in the courtroom to clap for them. She asks defendants to weigh in on what they’re most proud of over the past few weeks.

The care and attention, the positive reinforcement, is intentional, says Butch Tate. He’s chief counsel for All Rise, a nonprofit that provides technical assistance and training to drug courts, DUI courts and veterans treatment courts.

“There's data to suggest that just a simple, somewhere around 5 minute, interaction with the judge each week improves that veteran's chances of success in the court. Just that one-on-one interaction where that veteran goes, ‘you know, she cares about me,” explains Tate.

In some ways, this is all part of how a veterans treatment court is like a regular drug treatment court. It does things like assess a participant’s needs and risks, increase positive reinforcement and address the thinking that led to criminal behavior.

READ: Policies and Procedures for Milwaukee County Veterans Treatment Court

But Veterans Treatment Court is unique in a few different ways. For instance, there are veteran mentors.” “It's not a clinician, it's not a financial advisor. It's not a life counselor. It is a battle buddy,” says Tate, “a term very familiar to veterans, to whom that veteran who is going through the court process can turn to for assistance.”

Eric Raatz is one of those mentors in Milwaukee County. He, himself, is a graduate of Veterans Treatment Court and now helps others. “We're all veterans, we've all been through the military, in some aspect,” says Raatz. “We have ties to each other that other people really want understand. And I think that's what makes me feel that I understand what they're going through, not only from the addiction aspect, but like understanding that they can do this.” Raatz explains, if they’ve done military service, they can do this.

Another plus of the court? It's staffed by Veterans Justice Outreach specialists, or VJO’s. The VJOs can hook up participants with resources from the VA that they’ve earned from their time in uniform.

Finally, Veterans Treatment Court has a sprinkling of military culture that helps the vets. There are those service flags you notice at first, the mentor “battle buddies.” But Tate, from All Rise, says there’s also a structure that vets will respond to, sort of a reference back to their time in the military. Andy, the vet who’s going through court right now, agrees.

“Being reminded of your military service, and the fact that you committed to self-excellence, and you committed to, being self- disciplined, situations like this, I consider, you know, are reminders of those [things]. I mean, yes, you know, there has been screw ups in my part. But you remind yourself as a vet, you're held to a higher standard, and I think that helps reiterate, and keep you focused.”

In the past 11 years that Veterans Treatment Court has been running in Milwaukee County, there have been more than 400 participants with a 75% graduation rate. Court officials want those numbers to keep rising.

Maayan is a WUWM news reporter.
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