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It won't be long before Central Illinois veterans will have another avenue for help: a veterans court for the 11th Judicial Circuit is expected to begin early this year.

The court, like those already in place for people with substance abuse or mental health problems, will serve a select group whose background may have contributed to alleged criminal behavior. Honorably discharged vets who may qualify for the voluntary program will be chosen during the jail intake process; Veterans Administration staff will determine who is eligible for referral.

Participation in any specialized court program is not a free ride, or an easy one. Those involved have an issue or illness in a specific area, like drug abuse or mental illness. For veterans, problems may be rooted in post-traumatic stress disorder, drug abuse or brain injury. In the 11th Circuit, help in those areas will be provided by the VA and local health care providers. Program graduates can apply for expungement of their record.

The McLean County program still needs final approval by the Illinois Supreme Court that mandated in 2016 that every circuit establish a veterans court. The first veterans court opened in the United States in 2008 in New York; at least 350 now exist in 32 states. Madison County opened the first veterans court in Illinois in 2009. Specialty courts to help Illinois defendants have been around for more than 20 years.

As recently reported, the local court will have a capacity of 40 veterans, a number that organizers believe will be reached because the program covers McLean, Livingston, Logan, Ford and Woodford counties.

"The veterans court gives them an alternative, a better option, to address the issues that caused them to be involved with the law," said Jerry Vogler, superintendent of the McLean County Veterans Assistance Commission.

Specialized courts provide an important service: judges and support staff who understand the specific needs of those involved and have connections to outside agencies that can help; administrative judges and attorneys who specialize in the minutiae of city codes and can work with violators on solutions; and keeping those time-consuming cases off mainstream judicial calendars, allowing quicker resolutions in other cases.

Not every specialized court wins broad support but, in McLean County, they have proved to be effective — and are making a difference. Problem-solving court teams need to be realistic in their expectations for the defendants and the time frames for their success. But even very small improvements can have a lasting return.

We owe nothing less to our military veterans.

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