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Milwaukee County Court Succeeds in Helping Vets Overcome Addiction

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Erin Toner
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As abuse of drugs and alcohol by veterans increases around the country, Milwaukee leaders are trying to tackle the issue using the court system.

The federal government will soon send a team of investigators to the VA hospital in Tomah, Wisconsin. It’s accused of over-prescribing medications and retaliating against employees who questioned the practice. The Center for Investigative Reporting uncovered the problems, including a five-fold increase in opiate prescriptions.

Groups nationwide have become concerned about veterans abusing pain medications, along with street drugs and alcohol. Locally, a specialized court is working to help vets overcome addiction.

The Milwaukee County Veterans Treatment Court meets every Wednesday morning. All the defendants on the docket during a recent session were men, including 58-year-old Christopher McCain. He racked up three drunk driving convictions and a prostitution charge.

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Credit Erin Toner
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Judge Ellen Brostrom presides over the Milwaukee County Veteran Treatment Court, which aims to help vets overcome addiction.

Judge Ellen Brostrom starts the proceedings by telling McCain he’s been doing an excellent job meeting the court’s requirements, including attending all his appointments, passing drug tests, making court payments and working full-time.

“I don’t believe you have had a single violation while on this program. How did you manage that?” Brostrom asks.

“One day at a time,” McCain answers, adding that he’s been sober for 13 months.

The judge congratulates the veteran and the court erupts in applause. It’s not exactly what you’d expect at the county courthouse, where judges send some offenders away for decades, or life.

But this court is different. Judge Brostrom says veterans who’ve served their country, and have suffered physically or mentally for it, deserve a second chance.

“Being a vet is tough, whether you serve in combat or not, it’s a very difficult burden to take on. And we owe them a way to get themselves back to wholeness, especially when the brokenness they’re experiencing is a result of having served in the military, for which we are all indebted,” Brostrom says.

Thirty-year-old Tomas Casas, who served in the Army from 2005 to 2009, is another defendant. He says he came home from his service with PTSD and traumatic brain injury and dealt with those disabilities by drinking. That led to one drunk driving arrest, and then another.

“I was in some pretty hot water,” Casas says.

He faced six months in jail and hefty fines. Casas says luckily, the Veterans Treatment Court accepted him and assigned him to alcohol treatment and therapy.

“I don’t think I would have looked for the extra help without being in this situation. It’s pretty common with military to not look for help. You get taught to drink water and drive on,” Casas says.

Casas is close to completing the program, yet admits he’s fearful.

“I don’t want to graduate out of the program and find myself with a mess that I have to shuffle through,” he says.

The court accepts only non-violent offenders with a substance abuse or mental health issue that prompted their crime. Defendants must undergo drug or alcohol treatment and, as they succeed, the court reduces their sentences or dismisses the charges against them.

“This is really a last chance for many of them. If they don’t succeed, the consequence is gonna be prison,” says Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm, a former Army lieutenant.

Chisholm came up with the idea for the veteran treatment court, and says the approach is working. Of the 60 people who’ve gone through the program in its first two years, 50 completed it.

Chisholm says beyond helping people turn around their lives, the court saves taxpayer money by keeping people out of the criminal justice system.

“All the studies we have done have shown that alternative approaches to criminal behavior that identify what kind of risk a person poses, then effectively intervenes, is by far the most cost effective way of approaching it,” Chisholm says.

And, the defendants’ VA benefits cover most of the treatment the court orders.

While many Wednesday morning court sessions are upbeat, some are somber. At the end of a recent session, Judge Brostrom sentenced a 28-year-old veteran for stealing to fuel his heroin addiction. He failed the court program.

“At this point I’m sort of left with punishment and deterrence. There’s a value in that, and here are the values. The first off is, you’re gonna get a long time out from drug use,” Brostrom tells the defendant.

The vet’s mother, in tears, and his father watch as the judge sends the young man to the county jail, for one year.

“…the darkest hour is before the dawn. We are absolutely, absolutely wishing you ultimately success on all of this,” Brostrom says.

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