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Johnson County courts expand programs to help people get treatment instead of punishment

Eddie Luster embraces Johnson County District Judge Timothy McCarthy as he graduates after nearly two years in the Veteran’s Treatment Court program.
Noah Taborda
Eddie Luster embraces Johnson County District Judge Timothy McCarthy as he graduates after nearly two years in the Veteran’s Treatment Court program, while his mentor Mike Ralls looks on.

Incarcerated individuals with mental illness spend an average of 21 days in jail and are at higher risk of physical illness and death. Johnson County plans to add another specialty court focused on treating these issues rather than punishing them.

In a packed courtroom in Johnson County, Eddie Luster stood for his fellow veterans as they presented the United States flag.

After two years of work, Wednesday was Luster's graduation day from veterans treatment court.

Luster spent three years in the U.S. Army, served in the National Guard and deployed in Saudi Arabia. But after he left the service, he grappled with the emotional toll. It led to him acting out — to the point where he ran afoul of the law.

Usually, he would have gone to court and ultimately been on probation. But in Johnson County, he had the option to go through a court specifically created with veterans in mind.

"This whole thing is like grace and mercy," Luster said. "Grace means getting something good that you don't deserve. That's what this is. Mercy is not getting something bad that you do deserve. That applies here too."

The aim of veterans treatment court — and others specializing in mental health or drug issues — is to get people treatment, instead of punishment, to keep them out of further legal trouble.

The process can take anywhere from a year to two years to complete.

Eddie Luster, left, holds a plaque given to him and fellow Veteran’s Treatment Court graduates Brian Irving, center, and Terry Wade, right, by a veteran currently in the treatment process on December 7, 2022.
Noah Taborda
Luster, left, holds a plaque given to him and fellow Veterans Treatment Court graduates Brian Irving, center, and Terry Wade, right, by a veteran currently in the treatment process.

During his treatment, Luster caught COVID-19 and needed a pacemaker. He said it took the support of his wife — who was in attendance to celebrate him — and the whole court staff to make it through a process that can be more rigorous than military service.

"It's tough," said Mike Ralls, Luster's mentor through the process. "It's taking your entire life and turning it upside down, inside out and around, getting through that, and going forward.”

Each veteran is assigned a veteran mentor when they enter an agreement with the specialty court. Mentors serve as support, but the onus is on the person in treatment to navigate the hurdles in front of them.

The first specialty court program in the country was a drug court in 1989 in Florida. That model spawned a variety of specialty courts focused on other issues — like mental health, domestic violence and challenges faced by military veterans.

The courts have to be approved by county governments. Then, the biggest obstacle is usually money to pay to train judges and staff and to develop the program. Several organizations, including the U.S. Department of Justice and the National Institute of Justice, provideongoing grants for jurisdictions hoping to establish specialty courts.

Currently, Johnson County has a Drug Treatment Court and a veterans program. Next year, the county will launch a Mental Health Court. As of 2020, there are 138 treatment courts on the Missouri side, according to the state.

Clay, Cass, Platte and Jackson counties each have at least one treatment court.

The Veteran's Court in Johnson County is one of two in Kansas, with the other in Wyandotte County. Johnson County District Judge Timothy McCarthy said it opened the door to different specialty courts.

"We couldn't get traction on adult drug court 10 years ago," said McCarthy. "But we did get traction on veterans treatment court because everybody acknowledged, you know, there's a group that we ought to extend a hand to, somebody that deserves a second chance.”

Eddie Luster graduate Johnson County Veteran's Court on December 7, 2022
Noah Taborda
Luster credited his wife, mentor Mike Ralls and the entire court staff for helping him weather rough patches, such as when he was sick with COVID-19.

Sixty-two people have completed the program since it launched in 2016. That includes Luster and his fellow graduates — Brian Irving and Terry Wade.

Initially, skeptics framed the program as a way to avoid punishment, but it's a lot more work than probation, McCarthy said.

"Our veterans have to go through evaluations. They have to go to treatment," McCarthy said. "They get tested twice a week for one to two years for drugs and alcohol. They have to report to their probation officer. They have to stay in touch with their veteran mentor.”

While not everyone graduates, McCarthy estimates about two-thirds make it through.

Studies show a reduction in recidivism rates for people who make it through drug courts during and after their court supervision. There is limited research showing the effectiveness of mental health courts, but a review of thesecourts in the Bronx and Brooklyn by the Urban Institute showed those who graduated were much less likely to come into contact with the legal system.

Tim DeWeese, executive director of the Johnson County Mental Health Center, said the regular court system doesn't get to the root causes that land people in legal trouble.

"If we send that individual who's not treated through the court process, the likelihood — that once they get done with that court process — of it happening again because they haven't gotten treatment is high," he said.

In October, the Johnson County Board of Commissioners accepted a grant for more than $300,000 to develop a mental health court program in collaboration with the Johnson County Mental Health Center. The funds will go toward research, program assessments, staff training and salaries associated with implementing the program.

The plan is to have the court operational in about one year. In the interim, a planning committee with agency leaders from across the county will design the court’s structure.

The county anticipates the court will serve about 50 people in the first two active years.

DeWeese said the court will also save taxpayers money because the services keep people out of jail and prison, which are far more expensive. Anaudit conducted by the Kansas Legislative Research Department estimated the annual cost per adult inmate to be about $30,100.

At the core, specialty courts are still about encouraging accountability and creating structure. DeWeese said if they help further destigmatize mental health issues in the community, that would be a welcome bonus.

"We should focus on being able to help people better their lives and help people learn, change and grow," DeWeese said. "I think that these courts provide that opportunity."

As KCUR's health reporter, I cover the Kansas City metro in a way that reflects our expanding understanding of what health means and the ways it touches different communities and different areas in distinct ways. I will provide a platform to amplify ideas and issues often underrepresented in the media and marginalized people and communities in an authentic and honest way that goes beyond the surface of the issues. I will endeavor to find and include in my work local experts and organizations that have their ears to the ground and a beat on the health needs of the community. Reach me at noahtaborda@kcur.org.
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