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Military veterans benefiting from new criminal court

Wednesday, December 16, 2009
Chicago Defender
by Wendell Huston

Rather than send them to prison, veterans charged with non-violent felonies in Cook County, such as drug possession or theft, have an opportunity to receive probation if they choose to appear in Veterans Court.

In February the Cook County Felony Veterans Court Program was implemented as a way to increase veterans’ understanding of services available to them, such as job readiness, housing, medical and more.

To date 35 veterans have appeared in courtroom 204 at the Cook County Criminal Courts Building, 2650 S. California Ave. And of those veterans, 70 percent were Black, said Mark Kammerer, director of treatment programs for the Cook County State’s Attorney’s office.

“It does not matter if a veteran has past convictions. As long as their current charge is a non-violent felony they are eligible to have their case heard in veteran’s court,” Kammerer explained. “They have the choice of pleading guilty and accepting probation or they can plead innocent and have their day in court, where they could still receive probation.”

However, the only guarantee a veteran has to receive probation is to plead guilty rather than go to trial. If not, they run the risk of being sentenced to prison depending on other factors, such as their background, according to the program.

David Eggert, 56, appeared Friday in the newly formed court before Judge John Kirby to explain why he missed an appointment with his probation officer.

“I was sick, Your Honor. I had pneumonia,” Eggert said. “I have my paperwork to prove it, Your Honor.”

After providing proof that he had been treated by a doctor, Kirby continued his case until January.

The same day, another veteran was tested for drug use and his results came back positive.

This was his second time in one week testing positive for cocaine. The judge ordered him to undergo 120 days of drug treatment at Cook County Jail where he will stay unless he posts bail, which was set at $150,000.

Eggert said he likes Veterans Court because the people there are concerned about the well being of veterans.

“These people are not here just for a paycheck. They are here because they care,” he told the Defender. “I am glad such courts exist because the other courts do nothing but lock you up and throw away the key.”

According to Kammerer, the majority of the veterans who appear in Veterans Court are men but some are women.

“I served in the Persian Gulf War and was wounded so I was sent home,” said Monique Stallsworth, 51. “I am here because I got caught with drugs on me. I was selling them to get some money but I was not using it. I could have received two to five years in prison but was given a second chance if I complete my probation and stay out of trouble.”

One veteran who appeared in court Friday said he had no place to live.

Within two hours caseworkers had found a place for him to stay. Featherfist, a South Side homeless organization, agreed to take him in at their newest building, which opened Dec. 7 exclusively for veterans.

Veterans Court is held 9:30 a.m. the second and fourth Friday of each month. In addition to probation, veterans can also receive social services, such as housing, education and legal assistance, job training, mental and substance abuse counseling.

“Believe it or not there are some veterans who do not even know what services they’re eligible for, so we coordinate our efforts with the state and federal Veteran Departments to get vets the services they need and are entitled to,” Kammerer said. “And just so taxpayers know, this court is not an additional cost to them because even if the court did not exist the vets would still have to go to court somewhere.

In January a second Veterans Court is expected to open at the Cook County Criminal Courts Building in west suburban Maywood. The unique court is modeled after Veterans Courts in Buffalo, N.Y. and San Diego, according to William Schmutz, director/community liaison for the Chicago Commission on Human Relations.

“This court came about after we saw the courts in New York and California doing so well with its vets,” Schmutz said.

“We want to help our veterans not lock them up after they serve their country.”



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