Special Report: A court built for veterans starts in Buncombe County
BUNCOMBE COUNTY, N.C. -- "I was on high alert all the time. I always say it was like I was in overdrive for 27 months, and then I come back and I'm just supposed to calm down and act normal, and it's just - you know - it's hard sometimes," United States Army combat veteran Jeremy Gunter said sitting in a courtroom on the ninth floor of the Buncombe County Courthouse. "I'm taking care of stuff I should have taken care of when I first got out of the military."
Gunter is one of more than a dozen veterans that have signed up to be part of the Veteran's Treatment Court (VTC) program in Buncombe County. The program is in its first year and is the third one of its kind to be established in the state.
"It's set up to address the global needs of the vet - which is psychological, psychiatric, you know, medical, social," Buncombe County District Attorney Todd Williams said.
VTC staff work with the local VA Medical Center to place veterans in addiction rehabilitation programs and mental health courses. As part of the program, participants are required to check in with a mentor daily, get intermittent drug screenings and also secure a job. Upon completion of the program, non-violent convictions can be expunged from a veteran's record.
"We're asking vets to do a lot in putting their lives back together, so we need to structure it so there's a lot of encouragement and resources," said Williams.
The Buncombe County VTC is in Superior Court, which means it is empowered to clear felonies. Many VTC programs nationwide are in District Court and don't have that ability.
"It's been shown repeatedly, that treatment is usually cheaper, and it's a better bet for public safety, as well," Williams said. "If we can treat the issue, restore the offender to wholeness in our community and compliance with the law - it's a better bet to do that than defer the risk on down the road until after they're released from prison. We screen everybody that comes in, so the vet needs to be ready for change in the vets life, has access to services, be reasonably stable and isn't charged with a violent crime."
The court is in its first year, and no veterans have dropped out.
Statistics taken from the 227 VTC programs nationwide say that one percent of veterans who graduate will commit a crime again. The average recidivism rate in normal courts is over 50 percent.
"It's harder to go through Veterans Court than it is to go to jail," VTC Buncombe County Judge Marvin Pope said. "They come back differently than what they went over as, and so when they get involved in criminal offenses, we owe it to them to give them a step up to try to overcome it."
"The structured environment's good for me, it's like the military somewhat - I know what I got to do, when I got to do it and how I got to do it," said Gunter, who's 31 years old and has a wife and three young children.
Gunter, who had a clean record before enlisting in the Army, was convicted for running from a state trooper and having drugs on him when he was stopped. He says a felony can hold him back from securing housing and a job.
His family lives in Jackson County where he's from, and he's not allowed to leave Buncombe County during the program. Right now, he's undergoing addiction rehabilitation and treatment for PTSD.
Gunter says he talks to his kids every day.
"I just want my family back so I can be there for my kids," he said. "If they want to play football, or whatever they want to do, I want to be around them. I want to be part of it. I want to be able to support them."