The Veterans Court program in Missoula was the first of its kind in the state, launched to give vets who’d run afoul of the law a chance to beat their addiction, treat their mental health disorder and get their life on track.
Since then, the program has recorded an 80-percent graduation rate, but for most of the past six years, it also has struggled for funding, even though it costs less than $100,000 annually to operate.
“We still manage to get funding from a variety of sources, but it’s always a challenge,” said the court’s standing master, Brenda Desmond. “We’re very frugal. We know all the least expensive and best ways to do everything.”
Desmond said a number of issues are working against the program. Among them, the state requires any treatment court to receive federal funding for three years before it qualifies for General Fund support from the state.
While 135 programs applied for federal funding last year, Desmond said, less than 40 were approved.
“Getting a federal grant is very random,” she said. “I have a lot of personal feelings about support for veterans, or the lack thereof, and I don’t like that (state) rule, though it’s not treating us any different than anyone else.”
Since its founding, Veterans Court in Missoula has enlisted 50 participants. More than half are combat veterans from post-9/11 conflicts. The court’s completion rate stands at 80 percent, which Desmond considers high.
As of last December, roughly six veterans had been discharged from the court. One moved, two died and nine were still enrolled. The program has celebrated roughly 28 graduations to date, the latest taking place in February when Desert Storm veteran Jason Rawlings received his certificate of completion.
“We need to step up for the people who have the hardest time readjusting,” said Desmond. “The thing I find so frustrating about veterans in the criminal justice system is, we know if their crimes are related to readjustment difficulties that are connected to their service, then we know what to do about it.”
Given its relatively low cost, Desmond views the program as a deal, both for the veterans in the system and the taxpayers. Still, the Missoula program was recently denied a grant from the Montana Health Care Foundation, which often receives more funding requests than it can fill.
Desmond said the Missoula court will try for a federal grant again in February.
“For most of the people we’ve worked with in the program, they just want a better life,” she said. “Many of them are so done with the way things are going in their life.”
As Desmond prepares to apply for a new grant, she’s also pushing to expand the veteran court program to rural areas in an effort to access troubled vets in more remote locations.
As it stands, only Missoula, Billings and Great Falls have a veterans court. A fourth is coming online in Bozeman. And while the Department of Veterans Affairs has its own treatment programs, Desmond believes they’re too slow to respond and are often understaffed.
“What I proposed to the Montana Health Care Foundation is a plan to give all veterans in Montana in the criminal justice system access to a veterans court,” Desmond said. “There could be a robust treatment team with services in small places, and it could be be tagged with the court in one of the four cities. It’s not fair that where you live dictates your access.”