Aided by grant, Missoula Veterans Court to double those it serves

Brenda Desmond, standing master of Missoula Veterans Court, right, congratulates one of the program’s graduates. While the court generally handles 25 people at a time, it will double that number thanks to a federal grant announced Thursday. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current file photo)

At any given time, roughly 25 former service members are enrolled in Missoula Veterans Court, embarking on a yearlong journey to do right by past mistakes.

Thanks to a federal grant, Missoula’s nine-year-old treatment court will double that number.

Brenda Desmond, the court’s standing master, said the $450,000 grant will play out over the next four years, enabling Veterans Court to hire a new coordinator, effectively doubling the number of people it serves.

“We’re moving forward on our expansion grant and advertising for a coordinator,” Desmond said Thursday. “It means we’re able to expand over a period of time, probably about a year, to 25 participants.”

The court generally engages 12 participants at a time. It has graduated 44 people over the years, though Desmond believes that number will grow as more veterans engage in the program.

“We have set 25 participants as meeting the need of veterans in western Montana who are involved in the criminal justice system and need the high level of monitoring and treatment we provide,” she said.

Co-Occurring Treatment Court with Veterans was founded in Buffalo, New York, in 2008. The program found its start in Missoula in 2011, making it the first court of its kind in Montana.

The effort blends a number of resources, from the VA Montana Health Care System to local prosecutors, public defenders and a team of volunteer mentors. Such strong collaboration has made the court highly successful, Desmond said.

“Our completion rate is very high,” she said. “Almost 90% of the people complete the program, which for a treatment program is quite high. Our reoffense rate is very low compared to a similarly situated group in the criminal justice system. That has helped our collaboration too.”

The court has seen 67 people enroll, and it has dismissed nine from the program. The remaining few have either moved or passed away.

Those who do complete the program are largely thankful for earning a second chance. With the court’s guidance, they have fought addiction, received treatment and completed community service.

As one recent graduate told the Missoula Current, “A sober life has really helped me get in touch spiritually with God and my church. I think that’s what truly has saved my life.”

Desmond has seen those transitions first hand.

“People have gotten back on track in amazing ways in this program,” she said. “I feel so fortunate to observe people get back on the track they were on when they entered the military.”

With the court soon capable of taking in more participants, it’s also looking for a new batch of mentors. Its annual training is set for November. Those interested can call 258-4641 for more information.