Court system to implement $533K program for veterans

Published 1:06 am Thursday, September 28, 2017

Covington County Circuit Court Judge Lex Short and Covington County District Attorney Walt Merrell announced Tuesday that they have partnered to create a court division specifically tailored to the needs of veterans within the court system. In addition to the creation of this new court, they announced that they have received a $533,000 project award for the implementation of the 22nd Judicial Circuit Veterans Treatment Court.

“We have come to realize that veterans face unique challenges as they navigate through any judicial process,” Merrell said. “We all bring our life experiences with us on any journey; veterans bring life experiences that are unique only to them. This court will help veterans find recovery or stability or whatever it is that they need so that they do not return to the criminal justice system in the future.”

Judge Short said the court should be functioning by the end of the year.

“We will be prepared to service as many veterans as we can,” he said. “These men and women made vital sacrifices for us and, as a court system, we are going to do whatever we can within the bounds of the law to help them restore their lives.”

Merrell will be the program administrator, Judge Short will be the presiding judge. The project, made possible through a grant by the U. S. Department of Justice and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, will pay $400,000 over three years and is to be matched by $133,000.00 in matching funds or in-kind services. Merrell noted that much of those matching services will be provided by the Covington County Drug Court and the Office of the District Attorney. The grant calls for the creation of three new jobs, and the recruitment of a host of volunteers, he said.

Short said one of the strengths of the project proposal was the partnership with the Opp AMVETS Post 23.

“Walt and I reached out to the men and women of that Post, and they were quick to answer the call to serve,” Judge Short said.

A key component of Veterans Treatment Court will be pairing court participants with veteran mentors. The mentors will serve as a support outlet for the veteran participants.

“Any veteran in the county who is interested in being a mentor can contact the Opp AMVETS Post 23 or the Office of the District Attorney about how to serve,” he said.

“Many of the out-of-court services that this grant will provide for will be offered at the Opp AMVETS Post,” Merrell said. “We are excited about this partnership and what it means for the people of Opp. We know that this partnership will flourish for the benefit of the veterans.”

Short and Merrell previously assembled a steering committee to begin planning, in the event that the project was funded. One of the things that committee did was develop a mission statement for the court. That mission statement is as follows:

“In recognition of the sacrifices of our veterans, who may now suffer invisible wounds as a result of their service to our country, it is the mission of the 22nd Judicial Circuit Veterans Treatment Court to enhance public safety through a unified effort of the court system, the Veterans Administration and community treatment providers for the purpose of promoting the common good and improving the quality of life for our veterans and their families.”

Merrell and Short, along with Opp attorney David Baker, Drug Court Coordinator Sabrina Cobb and Mental Health professional Amanda Sanders, traveled to Buffalo, N.Y., and visited with Judge Robert T. Russell, Jr., who created the first Veterans Court in the country.

“We explored every aspect of their Court and learned all of its intricate details,” Short noted. “Their method has proven highly successful, and we intend to replicate it here as much as possible.”

Merrell said he found strong support for this project wherever he needed it.

“Opp Mayor Becky Bracke has been a vital part of this process. She has been an ardent supporter of our efforts and she has been instrumental in her role.”

Bracke added the program will be a real benefit for veterans, and for the City of Opp.

Short also expressed thanks to Veterans Service Officer Brian Foshee, who is also committed to serve as mentor coordinator.

For more information, contact the District Attorney’s Office at 222-2513 or stop by the Opp AMVETS Post 23, 203 MLK Drive.