Vets help vets stay out of jail through a unique Fulton County court

The program started two years ago with a $750,000 federal grant and now has 25 volunteers and 30 mentees

Outside the Fulton County Accountability Court headquarters, a cold wind ripped through the Bankhead neighborhood west of downtown. Standing inside before two dozen veterans of conflicts from Vietnam to Afghanistan, John L. Walsh, a real estate broker and a Vietnam War veteran, gave his pitch with all the fervor of a seasoned recruiting sergeant. “I’m here to recruit you,” Walsh nearly shouted, pointing a finger. “You will experience highs, lows, frustration. One thing and one thing only is important: You’ve got to get the troop across the finish line, or you’re not doing your job.”

Illustration by Taylor Callery
Illustration by Taylor Callery

So goes the spiel for volunteers at Fulton County Veterans Court. The nascent diversionary program, the first of its kind in metro Atlanta, seeks mentors to help fellow veterans who are facing nonviolent felony charges. The program focuses on mentoring longtime criminals—often homeless, middle-aged, and hard-core drug addicts—who would be destined for prison without a court alternative. The goal is threefold: to have charges dropped, veterans’ lives stabilized, and taxpayers spared the cost of incarceration.

“These are people that you might not otherwise want to speak with,” Superior Court Judge Todd Markle, who presides over the program, told the potential volunteers. “But they need you. They really are at the end of the road.” One of the few nonveterans in the room, Markle believes so strongly in accountability courts that he volunteers his time while carrying a full caseload in other courts.

Since the program’s inception two years ago, more than 25 mentors have signed on to help roughly 30 veterans. Walsh, the mentor coordinator, strives to pair veterans of similar branches of service, though a veteran’s specific needs and personality can influence the decision. Each mentor spends around eight hours per month with their mentee—grabbing lunch at Burger King or coffee at Starbucks and giving updates during bimonthly court sessions that can seem like pep rallies. At a recent one, Markle called for a round of applause after awarding a “star” certificate to one participant, a recovering longtime meth addict. Conversely, the judge ordered deputies to lock up another veteran recently charged with drug possession.

The one-to-one ratio makes Fulton County Veterans Court unique and, advocates say, is a key to its success. Despite the drastic lifestyle change the program requires (drug tests and curfews, for example), only about 25 percent of participants have been removed for compliance issues or because they required a higher level of treatment. Walsh’s “finish line” is a jubilant graduation ceremony that, because of the course’s length of 18 to 24 months, participants have only recently begun to experience.

Fulton’s Veterans Court was seeded with a $750,000 federal grant in 2012. Anyone inducted into military service can receive help. Funding still comes from grants and federal sources (and $750 fees that mentees must eventually pay), but the county pays the bulk. By early 2014, however, program leaders said the model had already saved taxpayers thousands, because treating veterans is vastly cheaper (roughly $15 per day) than incarcerating them ($98 per day). The grant funds a staff of five—two clinical employees, two case managers, and a vocational rehab person—and requires the court to help at least 40 veterans per year, though officials “really want to expand the program to meet the needs of all who qualify,” said M. Lee Brooks, the Veterans Court director.

For each misstep, mentees are slapped with a sanction; how many of those warrant an expulsion from the program depends on the individual’s specific problems. Research suggests being more patient with severe addicts but less so with low-risk drug abusers and other offenders.

“There is a great deal of science that goes into this,” Brooks said. “But needless to say, we don’t have a set number (of infractions) where we give up on someone.”

David Wallace, a 68-year-old U.S. Navy lieutenant, was officer-in-charge on a swift boat in Vietnam. He’s reluctant to talk about his combat days but is quick to open up about his mentee, Reginald Woodard, whom he met shortly after Veterans Court launched. They had almost nothing in common, but “we sort of clicked in a lot of ways,” said Wallace. “[Woodard] was selected right out of boot camp for what’s called Radioman ‘A’ school, which is one of the better technical schools. I knew I had a guy that at least had some brains.”

What Wallace couldn’t see was the extent of Woodard’s tumultuous past. Woodard, 47, grew up in Atlanta between two houses where bootleg liquor was made, stealing sips as a child. In the Navy, he once passed out on a docked ship while high on cocaine, his discharge papers in hand. For two decades, he roamed metro Atlanta: shoplifting for drug money; failing treatment programs; sleeping in Centennial Olympic Park, under bridges, and in the basements of drug houses. Following a long string of arrests on theft and drug charges, he found himself at a crossroads in early 2013.

Wallace and Woodard set an early goal to meet four times a month. Over coffee at CNN Center and lunches at the Varsity, they chatted about Navy memories, finding an apartment for Woodard, and eventually getting his discharge upgraded through the Department of Veterans Affairs. Before long, they’d set another goal: dinner at a fancy intown restaurant by the summer of 2015. After a year, Wallace saw a changed man, resolute, working in a kitchen at a downtown hotel.

Throughout the program, Wallace made it a point to frame every certificate his mentee earned. Those mementos are tacked across a wall in Woodard’s new subsidized apartment, which he calls the nicest place he’s ever lived.

“It faces him every morning when he goes to leave,” Wallace said. “He’s got to look at that wall—don’t slip and fall.”

One afternoon last October, in a downtown auditorium full of judges, political dignitaries, law enforcement officials, alcoholics, and former junkies, Woodard wore a four-button blue suit his pastor had bought him and a new medal around his neck. With 586 days clean, he was officially the first Veterans Court graduate.

“I’m on the other side,” he said. “I’m living the right life.”

On the ground

$15
daily cost of treatment

$98
daily cost of incarceration

More Mentors Needed
For information about volunteering with Fulton County Veterans Court, contact mentor recruiter Scott Delius at sdelius@deliuslaw.com or 404-352-3400. Mentors must be honorably discharged or currently serving U.S. military veterans, including active duty, National Guard, or reserve.

This article originally appeared in our February 2015 issue under the headline “About Face.”

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