Sarpy County, Nebraska – Sarpy County is ready to add another feather to its cap in terms of community service and rehabilitation. A Veterans Treatment Court (VTC) is slated to join the county’s existing problem-solving courts. This innovative legal approach provides an alternative to imprisonment for non-violent felony offenders, particularly military veterans grappling with mental health or substance use disorders.
Bridging Justice with Rehabilitation
Heather Moran, the VTC coordinator and someone with close ties to the military, said, “I’m probably a little biased on this one, but these are people who have sacrificed so much for our community, and it’s our chance to give back to them, to give them those services for their families and themselves, so they don’t come back through, they get the help they need.” Moran’s enthusiasm for the cause stems not only from her professional role but also from her personal background. Having grown up in a military family and being married to a serviceman, her passion for the cause is palpable.
The opening of the VTC in November coincides with Veterans Day. This addition follows on the heels of Sarpy County’s Wellness Court, which started 18 months prior. Moran optimistically eyes the VTC, anticipating it to replicate the success of the Wellness Court. A testament to its success, the Sarpy County Wellness Court recently marked its third graduation. One of the graduates, Nicholas Saitta, shared his positive experience, “I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t have the support system that I have,” he confessed. “And I just hope that other people can have success in the same program.”
District Court Judge Stefanie Martinez, who has been at the helm of the Wellness Court since its launch in 2021, couldn’t help but commend Saitta for his inspirational journey, “You’re such a positive influence on everybody in the program, and you have so much to offer.”
The establishment and functioning of these courts necessitate participants to undergo a competency evaluation and plead guilty to their charges. However, the real beauty of the program lies in its conclusion: once participants successfully navigate through the program, their charge is erased. “Having these programs here, frankly, it was just a godsend to be able to offer that opportunity to people,” expressed Martinez on the transformational role of the courts.
The Veterans Treatment Court will operate under the watchful eyes of District Court Judge Nathan Cox. With the court’s inauguration on the horizon, Moran is engaged in the selection process, hoping to onboard 10 participants for its debut.
Eligibility and Framework
The preparatory phase for the VTC witnessed Moran, Judge Cox, and representatives from the district attorney’s office and public defender’s office, collaborating intensely to frame the court’s guidelines and policies. Elucidating their inclusive approach, Moran said, “We sat down when we were talking, like, who do we want coming in here? We decided as a group that anyone who served in the military, even if you were in the military for one day up till retirement, we want to look at you as a possible candidate for our program. We’re also looking at honorable discharge, dishonorable discharge, we didn’t want to limit that.”
Potential participants should fulfill certain conditions, including being at a high risk of reoffending, having committed a felony, and diagnosed with a mental health or substance use disorder.
While Sarpy County’s VTC is a novel venture for the region, Nebraska already boasts three similar courts in Douglas, Lancaster counties, and the Central Nebraska VTC.
Considering Sarpy County’s significant military community, the introduction of a VTC feels not just apt but necessary. A spirited Moran sums up the community sentiment, “It’s our turn to serve them. This is a community that has this huge Air Force base, Navy base, there are Reserves here, and we need to step up. We need to do better. We need to do better by them, and it’s time.”