A 2011-2012 study showed the US Department of Justice stats showed an estimated 181,500 veterans, eight percent of all inmates in state and federal prison and local jails, were serving time behind bars.
We are talking about the Vanderburgh County Court System and the Veterans Administration combining resources to help troubled veterans receive the help they need to stay out of prison.
Judge Kiely helped create the very first Veteran’s Court in Indiana.
Here’s the contact information for Gene Thweatt:
Gene Thweatt, Mentor Coordinator
Brad Byrd: Welcome to in-depth. We start tonight with a number. A 2011-2012 study showed the US Department of Justice stats showed an estimated 181,500 veterans, eight percent of all inmates in state and federal prison and local jails, were serving time behind bars.
We are talking tonight about the Vanderburgh County Court System and the Veteran’s Administration combining resources to help troubled vets stay out of prison.
With me tonight is Vanderburgh Circuit Court Judge David Kiely and the Mentor Coordinator for the Veteran’s Court, Gene Thweatt.
Judge Kiely this was certainly a passion that you had to create this court, the first in Indiana. What made you do it?
Judge David Kiely: I, I think the reason it was done, is because it needed to be done. Um, there wasn’t a veteran’s court in Indiana back in 2011. Uh I was part of a treatment court with Judge Trockman and I happened to be in a seminar up in Indianapolis where Judge Russell in buffalo NY who started the first veterans court spoke and uh, I was there and it kind of inspired me to start it because it needed to be done.
Brad Byrd: And Gene you’re the mentor coordinator and you’re doing mentoring too and you’re an air force vet, and you flew over southeast Asian, so you know the people that, uh, you’re working with, but what exactly does a mentor do in helping those vets who have been charged?
Gene Thweatt: A mentor is there to be a friend, someone to talk to that has a background in the military – that’s a requirement to be a mentor – is a veteran with honorable discharge. And I try to match up personalities and backgrounds particularly as it relates to combat difficulties with the veterans. But we’re not their banker, we’re not their transportation; we’re there to be their friend – we call it a battle buddy.
Brad Byrd: And Judge Kiely this is not an easy program, this is not like driving school, well that can be difficult, this is not like just a diversion program where there isn’t that much input. Tell me about that.
Judge David Kiely: this is an 18-month, three-year intensive program where we start with day reporting, it kind of depends on what issues our participants have – if they’re dealing with substance abuse issues obviously we want to put them in that path where they’re getting treatment for their substance abuse issues. Mental health issues – we want to address and that’s the great thing about the court, is its – we’ve gathered every resource in the community and we put it out there in front of the veterans and we steer them right into those resources.
Brad Byrd: Many of these veterans have been on the battle field whether it be in Iraq or Afghanistan, or even prior to that, when they walk into your courtroom for the first time – how does that touch you? I mean you’re a sitting judge, and you may have to make a lot of tough rulings and tough decisions, but what goes through your mind when they come in?
Judge David Kiely: Well, it’s – anyone that comes in front of me in the criminal justice system, it’s sad – they’re in an extremely difficult situation problems in their life have basically caused them to be introduced to our criminal justice system and we have to address it. It’s a problem we have in our community – and especially with veterans because a lot of veterans I see, the problems that they brought from combat, from the military are part of the reason they’re in our criminal justice system.
Brad Byrd: And Gene, it’s a challenge to get mentors to sign up, but you want military veterans because they’ve been there to work with individuals who might be having a… tremendous traumatic event in their life that is close to sending them to jail or even prison. How do you qualify to be a mentor and what do you ask them?
Gene Thweatt: Well, obviously, as I said a veteran and I look at their – it’s a form called DD215 – that carries everything for a veteran and I can look through that and see what kind of background they had. And we actually vet them through the court and the police system also. And they have to actually apply. They fill out an application that I review and interview them and then make a decision based on the police report.
Brad Byrd: Do they plead for help to you?
Gene Thweatt: Pardon me?
Brad Byrd: Do they plead for help to you? They want to, or is this something you have to drive the boat on, so to speak?
Gene Thweatt: I’m the back up. I always keep in touch with the mentees, regardless of whether they’re assigned to me or not. So I’m always the back up if somebody that calls. If somebody wants to talk with a veteran friend at 12 o’clock at night, then they call their mentor or they call me.
Brad Byrd: Judge, what advice, I mean what do you tell the veterans when they get in there? Into your courtroom.
Judge David Kiely: Basically, we let them know that this is going to be a difficult road. This is not an easy program. But, what we want to do is do everything we can to help them be successful. Not only through our program, but for the rest of their life.
Brad Byrd: It’s been a… would you call this a successful program? How many veterans have you helped through this process?
Judge David Kiely: It’s been a… personally, this has been one of the most satisfying things I’ve done in my 20 years on the bench. Um, because we get to see success. We started the program in 2011, we’re up to almost 75 veterans that have been through the program. Those that have graduated, um, our success rate is tremendous. We haven’t had any…
Brad Byrd: Repeat offenders…
Judge David Kiely: re-offend.
Brad – And Gene, I’m going to put up on the screen now a graphic. If you want to be a mentor, if you’re a military veteran. Gene, you tell me you prefer, if you can, someone who’s been involved in combat.
Gene– That’s not a requirement, but we have people with combat related problems. It’s almost imperative that we have someone that understands the situation they found themselves in, particularly if they were in ground combat, in close quarter combats. People need to be aware of those kinds of things to be a mentor.
Brad – Well, Judge Kiely, it can be a very tough stream to wade through but it appears as though the court is building a bridge to make it easier to get to the other side. We really appreciate you being here tonight, and keep us updated the numbers of success stories you have.
(This story was originally published on December 5, 2018)