Alumni, faculty and students in Drury University’s criminology program are helping turn around the lives of at-risk veterans thanks to an innovative court program.
The Veterans Treatment Court in the 39th Judicial Circuit (Barry, Lawrence and Stone counties) provides substance abuse and mental health-related treatment services for veterans who have been arrested for felonies. The idea is to “wrap” services around them and help them with heavy supervision in lieu of prison time. Drug courts have been around for decades, but courts for specialized populations like veterans are a newer concept.
“We focus on high-risk, high-need offenders,” says Shawn Billings, treatment court administrator for the 39thCircuit. “The only real difference is they’re veterans.”
Billings, an alumnus and current adjunct instructor, wrote a proposal to secure a three-year federal grant worth $800,000 with help from professors Vickie Luttrell and Jana Bufkin of the Behavioral Sciences Department. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services awarded the grant through the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. The team works closely with the Veterans Administration (VA) for service referrals.
“It’s a combination of a mental health court with a drug and DWI court, with the addition of a team partner in the VA,” says Judge Scott Sifferman, who oversees the docket.
Veterans often bear “invisible scars” from their service, Sifferman says, which can lead to PSTD, family strife, addiction and even homelessness. That’s why a specialized focus on this population is helpful, he says.
It’s already making an impact.
“I totally have a different outlook on life – a more positive outlook, for sure,” says Cory Dodson, a 31-year-old Army veteran who was arrested for possession of a controlled substance about a year ago.
Dodson served in Iraq in the early 2000s and says he was addicted to opiates for years after leaving the service. He credits the Veterans Treatment Court and his wife for getting his life back on track.
“Within 90 days of being in the program and being off drugs, we managed to put the money together to buy our first home,” says Dodson, also a father of five girls. “It’s been a 180. I feel like I have so much to live for now.”
Junior criminology major Shae Dunaway is the program coordinator. The full-time job provides her real-world experience in the criminal justice system before graduation. She says she wants to help remove stigmas associated with offenders who are turning their lives around. She points to participants such as Dodson as an example of someone who is helping himself with the support of others.
“The transformation is incredible and they are worth every bit of the time and money we put into them,” she says.
Billings says Drury’s focus on relationship building is a natural fit for criminologists who want to use the justice system to improve lives.
“Drury centers on people; that’s important,” he says. “That’s basically what I’ve based my career on for the last 20 years – serving people.”
By Mike Brothers, director of media relations. A version of this story originally appeared in the Springfield News-Leader.