Veteran court pushed for Robeson

First Posted: 11/22/2013

PEMBROKE — When Ronnie Brooks, a Veterans Services officer for the Lumbee Tribe, looks at the veterans treatment court now operating in Harnett County, he imagines a similar system in Robeson County. The court, he says, would not only cater to the needs of Lumbee veterans, but would benefit all of the more than 9,000 veterans in Robeson County.

Last week, Brooks met with tribal, state and Veterans Affairs officials to pitch the idea of the Lumbee Tribe taking a lead in trying to establish a veterans treatment court in Robeson County. The court, Brooks said, would take into account a veteran’s military background and potential problems resulting from military service when the veteran finds himself in trouble with the law.

Veterans treatment courts are new in North Carolina, the first one opening in Harnett County last month. The court operates as some drug treatment and sobriety courts do in several of the state’s 100 counties.

Brooks and other proponents of veterans courts contend they are better than the regular court system to deal with some of the problems of veterans — such as post-traumatic stress disorder from wartime service and alcohol and drug abuse — that can lead to arrests. In a veterans treatment court, court proponents say, punishments such as jail time for misdemeanors are deferred as long defendants comply with treatment programs aimed at treating issues considered to be connected to their criminal misbehavior.

The court that opened in Harnett County has so far been successful, according to Ann G. Knowles, a veterans services officer from Sampson County.

“The court has two goals. It benefits our veterans and it benefits our community,” Knowles said.

According to Knowles, the Harnett Court, which is being funded through a grant from the Governor’s Crime Commission, operates a half-day each week. Its staff, including district attorney and judge, is all volunteer.

“The system is all volunteer now, but I envision it will eventually expand and be like other court systems,” Knowles said.

Gov. Pat McCrory attended the opening of the Harnett County court on Nov. 6, and reportedly said at that time that the state wants to open a second court in Cumberland County and eventually a veterans court in all of the countie that have a veterans hospital.

Although Robeson County does not have a veterans hospital, it does have a veterans outreach clinic located in COMtech park, just outside of Pembroke. Proponents of the court say that to be successful, the court must have a close working relationship with a Veterans Affairs hospital.

James E. Prosser, director of veterans services and community support services in Mecklenburg County, said that a veterans treatment court needs support of local veterans and the local veterans board, as well as the state and national veterans associations.

“The key to the courts is getting the local veterans and VA on board,” he said.

Prosser emphasized that any plans to establish a veterans treatment court needs support and assistance from the local court system. This support, he said, must come from such judicial officials as judges and the local district attorney.

No one was present at last week’s meeting representing the Robeson County District Attorney’s Office or any of the county’s judges.

Members of Robeson County’s state legislative delegation present and supporting efforts of the Lumbee Tribe to take the lead in establishing a court to serve veterans in Robeson, Hoke and Scotland counties were Rep. Charles Graham and Rep. Garland Pierce. Also present was Greg Richardson, executive director of the N.C. Commission of Indian Affairs.

“In the fiscal year 2012, about $61 million came back to Robeson County through benefits paid to veterans,” Brooks said. “There was about $37 million paid in pensions, $4 million for education and vocational rehabilitation employment, and $19 million for medical care. Every bit of this money goes back into the community.”

Chris Oxendine, the Veterans Affairs officer for Robeson County, was not at the meeting to discuss establishment of a court, but when contacted by The Robesonian, said he would support any efforts to establish such a facility in Robeson County.

“I would be all for it. This is something that is definitely needed,” he said. “It would serve multiple functions that are valuable to all of our veterans.”