Despite ‘hiccups,’ Veterans Treatment Court marches toward expansion

With a “We Support Our Troops” flag hanging on the wall of his courtroom, and time set aside for all in attendance to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, Circuit Judge Howard McGillin started the October session of St. Johns County Veterans Treatment Court the way he always does.


Then he announced there were going to be some changes.

“That’s the last time I will say the ‘one’ session of Veterans Treatment Court,” McGillin said Thursday after welcoming everyone to the afternoon session.

Starting in November there will be two sessions per month, he said, before moving into his explanation of the other changes.

McGillin, a veteran himself who came up as an Army lawyer with the Judge Advocate General’s Corps, helped launch the special court for veterans earlier this year. The first session was in February.

Modeled after the drug court program already in place in the county and other veterans courts around the country, Veterans Treatment Court is meant to help those who have served and find themselves on the wrong side of the law as they struggle to transition back to civilian life.

Those meeting initial requirements must admit to the crime they are accused of committing and then are required to complete the 12- to 18-month program, which often includes community service time and drug treatment.

During their time in the program veterans must stay employed if they are able to work, submit to drug testing and attend all VA appointments for treatment.

Once completed, they are eligible to have charges dismissed or their records expunged.

With eight sessions already behind them, and more joining the program each month (there were about six potential participants in court Thursday who were there to observe), McGillin said some have made significant enough progress that they could be moved into what he is calling the “first flight” of the program.

That division of participants into flights is what necessitated the coming changes and the additional monthly session.

Those in the first flight, McGillin explained, will only have to attend once a month. The others, who are either just starting out, or have hit some stumbling blocks in their program, will remain in the second flight and have to attend every two weeks.

After court on Thursday, McGillin said Thursday’s session was the first where he really had to deal with a lot of what he called “hiccups.”

At least two participants had tested positive for drug use, and another had been removed from a residential treatment facility, an incident which could get him terminated from the program.

The drug tests earned the participants “sanctions” in the form of a one- or two-day stay in the county jail, but there was no heavy-handedness in the handling of the mistakes, and the two will continue with their programs once out.

“It’s just a speed bump, that’s all it is,” McGillin told one man as the bailiff placed him in handcuffs. “You don’t lose any credibility with me. We are here because we are a treatment court, we are still here with you.”

There was plenty of success to celebrate too.

At least six of the roughly 20 who attended were “promoted” to the next “phase” of their program and managed to make it into that first flight.

Each veteran received a round of applause from attendees as the promotion was announced.

Two of those promoted even made it to Phase 4 of the five-phase program.

“You would be truly leading the way,” McGillin told one man as he reviewed his case and discussed his moving to one of the last phases.

Other successes included one woman regaining custody of her child, a man who had earned an associate’s degree, and another who had landed two jobs to help him get back on his feet.

McGillin said after court that he is pleased with the way participants are progressing and isn’t troubled by those who had seen a setback in recent weeks.

“Relapse is part of treatment,” he said the experts commonly say.

When they are encountered, he said, the best thing to do is to encourage them to keep on with the program and the treatment they are receiving.

He said he is hopeful that the program can see its first graduates by January, which would prove something else that is often said: “Compelled treatment does work.”