A new problem-solving court for veterans charged in Johnson County courts will hold its first session in January. The court will help veterans address and recover from the underlying issues that influenced them to commit crimes.

Johnson County is launching a veteran’s court next month. The new court will be supervised by Johnson Superior Court 3 Judge Douglas Cummins, who is a U.S. Air Force veteran.

It is the sixth problem-solving court to be launched within the county, as the county has a reentry court, an adult drug/recovery court, a mental health court and now a veterans court. The Greenwood City Court also has two problem-solving courts — a recovery court and a veterans court.

The Veterans Court is designed to help those with military histories who are charged in the criminal court system address substance abuse issues, undergo treatment, recovery and function once outside the courts.

Johnson County courts see a high volume of cases involving defendants with a military history. For the last four years, court officials have used a service called Veterans Re-Entry Search Services to identify inmates or defendants who have served in the U.S. military.

They have had 989 criminal cases across all of the county courts that are flagged as having a defendant with a military history since 2019, according to court officials. Cummins estimates there are about 230 active cases involving this type of defendant right now.

“There’s quite a few. We should not have a problem keeping it full,” Cummins said.

Starting a veteran’s court is something county officials have wanted to start for a while, but officials were waiting to see if a veteran would take the bench in one of the county’s criminal courts to get it started. Veterans have a unique perspective, so officials wanted someone who understood and was well-versed in military situations and terminology to run the court, Cummins said.

When Cummins, who was previously the county magistrate, was appointed Superior Court 3 Judge in 2022 he began work on the court almost immediately.

“We started it once I got here — pretty quickly after I got here, actually,” Cummins said. “It’s just a long process to get everything in place, get the funding in place and all the paperwork so we can get it started.”

Currently, the court is working on getting it staffed — adding program participants and stakeholders like probation officers/case managers, social workers, program therapists and a U.S. Veteran’s Affairs representative. The unique part about the veterans court is its access to the VA, which has an “almost unlimited amount” of resources for veterans, Cummins said.

For example, while observing a veteran’s court in Bartholomew County, Cummins saw the court arrange inpatient treatment in another state for two individuals who couldn’t get what they needed in Indiana. This is not something other types of problem-solving courts could really pay for, he said.

“The VA has all these resources that open up a lot of different avenues for the vets, and [that] can include out-of-state treatment,” Cummins said. “They have a lot of the programs; they have a sober-living facility up by Roudebush [VA Medical Center] up there [in Indianapolis]. One of the unique features the veterans court has is the ability to tie those veterans into all the services the VA has available.”

Veterans court meetings will begin in January, but they will start slowly. One person is expected to be enrolled in the court at first, transferring from the Greenwood Veterans Court. Cummins expects more participants to join once word begins to spread about the veterans court among attorneys, he said.

Participants will undergo a five-step treatment process through the veterans court. For felonies, it’s about an 18-month process while it is about a year for misdemeanors, Cummins said.

The first phase is 90 days, which is in line with research that it takes about 90 days for someone’s brain to really start recovering from using drugs once they stop. Goals during this phase are to make participants show up, admit they have an issue and need help, keep them in therapy and keep them moving forward, Cummins said.

The courts send people to treatment all the time outside the problem-solving courts. However, until they decide they want it to be effective, it’s never going to take, he said.

Court officials will also deal with a lot of relapses during the first 90 days, but this is “just the way it works” as the recovery process continues. There’s a lot of work as they help offenders get through withdrawal systems and have their brains be re-calibrated so they are mentally prepared for being sober long term, Cummins said.

The other phases are designed to guide them through the recovery process and make sure they stay clean. Like other forms of probation, it starts out stricter but loosens up as it goes on, he said.

Along with substance abuse treatment, court officials will help participants gain and maintain employment. They also help with practical things like getting a driver’s license and transportation so they can fully function once they are done with veterans court, said Shena Johnson, Johnson County courts administrator.

Ahead of its launch, the county is looking for 10 mentors for the veterans who’ll be enrolled in the court. Ideal mentors should be retired or disabled veterans who are able to dedicate time to help those in the program, Cummins said.

A lot of the mentors will come to the court sessions, but primarily the mentors will be expected to be there for participants to reach out to when they are having problems, he said. Having veterans as mentors is important because they understand veterans’ perspectives, Cummins said.

“It’s hard to find somebody that understands the things that they’ve seen and the things that they’ve had to do,” Cummins said. “It just makes it easier if it’s somebody that’s got that kind of background.”

Johnson says the addition of another problem-solving court shows officials’ willingness to work together. Each court has a representative from inside the county government, like the prosecutor’s office and the probation officer, to outside, like community members, attorneys, defense attorneys and treatment providers.

“We have all those people at the table,” she said. “So there’s an accountability piece, there’s a treatment piece and it all works together to make these people enter into recovery in a safe space.”

There are incarcerated individuals who have earned being locked up for a long time, but a majority of them are coming out. If the problems that got them incarcerated in the first place aren’t addressed, then they end up locked up again with more criminals and officials hope they don’t show back up in the system, Cummins said.

“It’s unreasonable because that’s what’s going to happen if you don’t address the issues that got them there in the first place. All you’re going to see is a recidivism rate that just keeps going,” he said. “We know the vast majority of the crime in the United States is committed by a very small number of people.”

There’s also a cost savings by not having an offender re-incarcerated, he said. It costs about $62 a day to incarcerate someone through the Indiana Department of Correction, Cummins said. If you multiply that over a year, which is the advisory sentence for a Level 6 felony, it is $22,350 a year.

“The savings to Indiana as a whole but Johnson County specifically is astronomical,” he said.