In a small gathering in a courtroom Thursday, Circuit Judge Brent Benson talked about the importance of bringing a veterans court to Jackson County, saying the diversionary court would target veterans charged with qualifying criminal offenses.

“It’s a hybrid drug and mental health court that helps veterans struggling with addiction, serious mental illness or other disorders,” said Benson.

Benson said the veterans court would work with veterans services and peer veteran mentors to seek and provide support for participants as they navigate the rigors of the court while reintegrating into society, sobriety and mental stability.

Benson, who served as an assistant district attorney, working with Circuit Judge John Graham and Drug Court for years, said the idea of a veterans court has been talked about for several years. Now, as a circuit judge, Benson says he can now turn that talk into reality. It’s needed, he added.

“Eighty-one percent of veterans in the criminal justice system had a substance use disorder prior to incarceration, and 25 percent were identified as mentally ill,” said Benson. “When I was working in drug court, we had 40-50 veterans that struggled with mental illness.”

Benson said Veterans Court would have similarities to Drug Court.

“Everything our veterans have done for us, it’s time we give back to them,” he added.

A key difference between the two courts would be mentors in Veterans Court. To qualify as a mentor, a person has to be a veteran.

“Participants respond more favorably to other veterans who have served in the military and share similar experiences,” said Benson. “Participants see mentors as a peer and not an authority figure like a judge.”

Benson said a mentor would meet with a participant multiple times a week, establishing camaraderie and a support system lost when leaving the armed forces.

“Mentors will receive training in how to help participants with their struggles,” said Benson. “Mentors are very important part, and we need participation.”

Ray Zimmerman, a retired colonel, has served as a mentor in Madison County for eight years.

“One in six soldiers return from Afghanistan, diagnosed with a mental problem,” said Zimmerman. “It’s about caring for your mentee and being there for them. The program is a whole lot more than just no conviction.”

Benson said he hopes to have the program up and running no later than Veterans Day.

“I am willing to operate with just one participant,” he said.

Anyone interested in being a mentor or helping with the program can contact Benson’s office at 256-574-9350.

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