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Advocates urge Alabama leaders to expand Veterans Treatment Courts statewide

MONTGOMERY, Ala. – A number of advocates appeared before an Alabama House committee this week to urge its members to support expanding the state’s Veterans Treatment Courts program, a program designed as an alternative route for veterans charged with a crime.

Last week, Veteran Treatment Courts mentor Ashlie Combs, businesswoman and former District 40 State House candidate Katie Exum, and retired U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Josh Kennedy appeared before the House Committee on Military and Veterans Affairs to pitch the idea of expanding the program.

The idea of an alternative rehabilitation program designed specifically for veterans was first put into practice in 2008 in Buffalo, New York, and in Alabama for the first time in 2011 in Birmingham. Through a combination of veteran-tailored drug and mental health programs, the treatment court proved successful, with the one-year recidivism rate of graduates being just 14%, a stark contrast with the national rate of 44%.

“Veteran Treatment Court is an extremely important program that allows our veterans who have entered into the criminal justice system a way to stay out of the criminal justice system,” Exum said during her presentation to committee members. “They come in, they’re processed, but they are then put into an 18-month program for mental health, substance abuse or any additional support that they may need.”

Exum pointed to a bill not yet filed but currently being drafted by Alabama Sen. Andrew Jones, R-Centre, which would expand the treatment court program statewide. Currently, 28 counties in Alabama have access to Veterans Treatment Courts programs. 

Jones, who also chairs the Senate Committee on Veterans, Military Affairs and Public Safety, relayed to Alabama Daily News that as he was still drafting the bill, he was not prepared to comment on it. While its details are still being ironed out, the bill is generally designed to see that all 67 Alabama counties have access to the treatment program.

Exum urged committee members to support Jones’ bill, and noted not only the effectiveness of the treatment program, but its cost effectiveness.

“It costs the state of Alabama nothing to do Veterans Treatment Court; all the benefits that the veterans need to receive come through their Veterans Benefit that they apply for and receive,” Exum said.

“I’ll share this statistic with you: according to the Department of Corrections, the annual cost to house an Alabama inmate is $30,163. In Calhoun County alone, we’ve graduated 20 graduates, so we saved the Alabama taxpayer $603,000. If every county graduated an average of 20 graduates a year, we would save the state of Alabama $40 million in Department of Corrections costs.”

Jones is not the only state legislator who has voiced support for expanding the Veteran Treatment Court. Freshman State Rep. Chad Robertson, R-Heflen, named expanding the program as his single-highest priority, telling Alabama Daily News that after observing graduates of the program, he saw “an immediate turnaround.”

Kennedy, who deployed to Iraq in 2007 with the U.S. Army 1-167th Infantry Battalion out of Cullman, Alabama, is a graduate of a treatment court, and joined Exum in urging committee members to consider supporting the program’s expansion.

“My experience that got me into Veterans Treatment Court was drugs and alcohol,” Kennedy said. 

“I wasn’t always a drug addict or an alcoholic; I served honorably for nine years, I was medically retired due to my injuries that I sustained in combat in Iraq in 2007 and 2008. At that time, I was medically retired in 2013, and that’s where my alcoholism and drug addiction transpired.”

Retired U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Josh Kennedy shares his story with members of the State House Committee on Military and Veterans Affairs.

A Calhoun County native, Kennedy explained that through a misguided process of self-medication, addiction began to adversely affect relationships with family and friends.

“It was a snowball effect like I could never prepare for, and from 2013 to 2019 just to be brief, I lost my first marriage very selfishly, and lost another marriage,” Kennedy said. 

“I have four biological children, and in 2019 I lost every bit of that. I was facing ten years in prison and I had no clue what the next step was. I had been served divorce papers, I had been served with protection orders preventing me to see my kids, and my life was at probably the darkest point that I’d ever been in in my life.”

It was in 2019, Kennedy said, that a judge in Calhoun County offered him the option to enter the Veterans Treatment Court. Accepting the offer, Kennedy was then placed into an 18-month treatment program, which consisted of drug testing and living in a sober living facility for 12 months.

“After that time, it introduced me to the program of recovery that I feel like has changed my life,” Kennedy said. “I’m coming up on four years now, this is the longest time I’ve ever been sober in my entire adult life.”

Graduating in December of 2020, Kennedy said that he went on to repair his relationships with his family, secured a stable job, and generally attributed the program to getting his life back on track.

“Today, my life is unrecognizable to what it was four years ago,” Kennedy said.

“It’s very safe to say Veterans Treatment Court helped me recreate my life back to being a father that my kids can be proud of, being a contributing member to society, and being able to help people just like me that went through things that I went through.”

After sharing his story, committee members and those in attendance applauded Kennedy as he left the speaking podium to take his seat.

According to Jones’ staff, the bill that would expand the Veterans Treatment Court will likely be finalized in early April.

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