Ohio Supreme Court Justice Sharon Kennedy advocates for veterans’ courts


New Philadelphia Times-Reporter

August 24, 2018

By: Nancy Molnar

NEW PHILADELPHIA – Veterans who suffer from post-traumatic stress or traumatic brain injury may end up in criminal courts, charged with drunken driving, domestic violence or starting bar fights.

But they may never tell the judge they are veterans because they are ashamed, believing they have dishonored the military by ending up in court, according to Ohio Supreme Court Justice Sharon Kennedy. Others may not identify themselves as veterans because they never saw active duty.

But by keeping their military service hidden, they miss the chance to be connected with specialized services the Veterans Administration offers to those who get in trouble with the law, Kennedy told the August gathering of the Tuscarawas Detachment of the Marine Corps League.

“We need to make the invisible, visible,” Kennedy told those who gathered in the Experimental Aircraft Association hangar at Harry Clever Field.

It is possible to identify veterans early in the legal process by listening to how they talk and watching how they act, Kennedy said. They may answer those in authority with, “Yes, ma’am” and “Yes, sir.” A veteran may keep a tidy jail cell, a discipline learned in the military.

Early identification of veterans means they can be connected sooner with resources the VA offers in its Veterans Justice Outreach (VJO) program, Kennedy said. The service is intended to avoid unnecessary criminalization of mental illness and extended incarceration. VJO specialists provide outreach, assessment and case management for veterans in local courts and jails and work with local justice system partners.

Kennedy visited the Marine Corps League to advocate for the creation of veterans treatment courts, sometimes called honor courts, which offer specialized treatment for veterans and active duty service members who have been charged with crimes.

She noted that Alcoholics Anonymous is the world’s most successful recovery program because it connects sufferers with peer mentors. The same practice is used in honor courts.

“What makes veterans courts work is veterans,” Kennedy said.

She said similar effects are seen when incarcerated veterans are housed together.

“If you have all veterans in the same pod, they self-correct,” Kennedy said. “They also have the ability to help one another.”

Stark County has an honor court intended to foster successful completion of probation and draw upon the codes of honor and service instilled in the participants during their military service. Its motto is: “Reclaiming Honor, Dignity and Lives.”

Kennedy said honor courts can help veterans return to leading productive lives sooner.

Among those in the audience at the Marine Corps League was Tuscarawas County Common Pleas Judge Elizabeth Lehigh Thomakos. She said she plans to attend Justice Kennedy’s Aug. 30 seminar about veterans treatment courts.

Thomakos said she may infuse some elements of the specialized honor courts into her own operations, such as trying to learn as soon as possible whether a defendant is a veteran.

“I usually find out at sentencing,” she said.

Thomakos found an immediate take-away message from Justice Kennedy.

“Just knowing that these additional resources are available is helpful,” she said.

More information about Veterans Justice Outreach is available online at https://www.va.gov/homeless/vjo.asp.