New court offers alternative to struggling veterans

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david sipprell
District Court Judge David Sipprell

A small but faithful cohort of veteran offenders shows promise in a court diversion program in Forsyth County designed to provide treatment for mental health and substance abuse problems.

Nicholas Wright, a 61-year-old Navy veteran with combat service in Vietnam who was facing a handful of misdemeanor charges including assaulting an officer, stood before District Court Judge David Sipprell in the Forsyth County Hall of Justice on a recent Wednesday.

The exchange was gentle and respectful.

“I’m staying on my meds,” Wright reported. “I’m staying away from bad company.”

Sipprell, an Air Force veteran, told Wright he’d heard good reports on his progress from his probation officer. In response to Sipprell’s inquiry, Wright confirmed that he was able to keep up his commitment to volunteer at his church on Fridays.

Wright’s mentor, standing beside him, also made a report.

“He’s doing a marvelous job,” the mentor — also a veteran — said. “He’s on the right path. I think he’ll be all right.”

“Okay, see you on May 3 then,” Sipprell said.

Wright was one of the first defendants to volunteer for Forsyth County’s new veterans treatment court, which allows prosecutors to drop minor charges if defendants agree to receive treatment for mental health and substance abuse problems. Wright attended the special court’s first session, on Jan. 18, and can expect to graduate in December if he stays on track, said Jemi Moore, the program coordinator.

With some charges, such as driving while intoxicated, where punishment is tightly restricted by state law, Assistant District Attorney Harold Eustache said the court can still incentivize participation by imposing active jail time at the low end of the sentencing range. Like Sipprell, Eustache and Assistant Public Defender Casey Shillito are both veterans, giving them the ability to empathize with the program participants. In contrast to traditional court, Eustache and Shillito work in a collaborative as opposed to an adversarial mode in the special veterans court.

Forsyth is the fourth county in the state to institute of veterans treatment court. The program operates with a $75,000 annual federal grant through the Governor’s Crime Commission that Moore said is provisionally approved for a second year in 2018. The program relies on partnerships with nonprofits for some functions like drug testing.

The most recent session of the court, which takes place every first and third Wednesday, went fairly quickly, with one prospective and three returning participants appearing before the judge in less than 30 minutes, all told.

The first case on April 19 was the equivalent of an arraignment, with Sipprell asking a 48-year-old man facing a misdemeanor charge of resisting a public officer if he was interested in the veterans treatment court. The man nodded affirmatively. Moore reported she had scheduled a screening for the man at Veterans Helping Veterans Heal, a Winston-Salem nonprofit that partners with the court, and Sipprell informed the man he would be placed on the docket for the May 17 session.

As a 36-year-old participant dressed in jeans and a black hoodie stood before the judge, Sipprell asked, “How are things going?”

“Going good,” the man said, adding that he has been receiving one-on-one counseling.

“That’s what I’m hearing from your probation officer,” Sipprell said. “You’re passing your drug tests. You’re making all your appointments. That’s what we like to see. Just keep on keeping on.”

Sipprell confirmed that another man on the docket had taken over his brother’s landscaping business.

“Between that and meeting your PO, are you keeping busy?” Sipprell asked.

“I’m worn out,” the man responded.

“With all the rain we’ve been getting, you’re probably going to have your hands full,” the judge said. “I’m watching the grass in my yard come up.”

“Do you need your grass mowed?” the man asked.

Sipprell laughed.

“The reports on you are very good,” he said. “You’re going to all your meetings, passing your drugs tests. That’s what we like to see.”

Sipprell said it’s too early to know whether the veterans treatment court in Forsyth County will be successful, although progress reports for the three participants in the April 19 session were uniformly positive. Sipprell added that studies have generally indicated that the special courts, which are based on a rehabilitative as opposed to punitive model of justice, are beneficial.

Nicholas Wright, the Vietnam veteran, said he was initially skeptical himself.

“At first I was kind of sluggish,” said Wright, who operated LCM boats embarking and disembarking Marines as a self-described “river rat” during his Navy service in Vietnam. “I had an attitude that there was no one that was going to help me. I was defeating my own self. I suffer with PTSD. It’s a roller-coaster.

“Some days are good and some days are bad,” he continued. “I’ve learned that with this court we’re accepted. As long as we keep our head straight. You have requirements to meet to keep [the court officers] happy, and at the same time you’re climbing back up. Society likes to see that someone who’s down is getting back up. Any veterans that’s having a problem I would refer them to this program.”

As part of his treatment, Wright is required to attend a support group for substance abuse.

“People don’t know that drugs and PTSD are hand in hand,” he said. “We use drugs to escape what we’ve been through. We’ve done what we have and what we can for America, and America doesn’t care. Most of us, if asked, would do it again.”

Wright said he attributes his charge of assaulting on an officer to a combination of his mental state and an overreaction on the officer’s part.

“I was off my psychotropic meds,” he said. “It was basically a misunderstanding. If the situation had not been fueled with how I felt with being down on myself and the police officer being aggressive, it would not have happened. They have to be trained on how a situation might be different with a veteran. With veterans you have no idea what’s going on in their heads. It’s not an easy life. We have a camaraderie with each other because we get that respect from each other, but we’d rather get it from civilians.”