Rather than send them to prison, veterans charged with non-violent felonies in Cook County, such as drug possession or theft, have an opportunity to receive probation if they choose to appear in Veterans Court.
In February the Cook County Felony Veterans Court Program was implemented as a way to increase veterans’ understanding of services available to them, such as job readiness, housing, medical and more.
To date 35 veterans have appeared in courtroom 204 at the Cook County Criminal Courts Building, 2650 S. California Ave. And of those veterans, 70 percent were Black, said Mark Kammerer, director of treatment programs for the Cook County State’s Attorney’s office.
“It does not matter if a veteran has past convictions. As long as their current charge is a non-violent felony they are eligible to have their case heard in veteran’s court,” Kammerer explained. “They have the choice of pleading guilty and accepting probation or they can plead innocent and have their day in court, where they could still receive probation.”
However, the only guarantee a veteran has to receive probation is to plead guilty rather than go to trial. If not, they run the risk of being sentenced to prison depending on other factors, such as their background, according to the program.
but some are women.
“I served in the Persian Gulf War and was wounded so I was sent home,” said Monique Stallsworth, 51. “I am here because I got caught with drugs on me. I was selling them to get some money but I was not using it. I could have received two to five years in prison but was given a second chance if I complete my probation and stay out of trouble.”
One veteran who appeared in court Friday said he had no place to live.
Within two hours caseworkers had found a place for him to stay. Featherfist, a South Side homeless organization, agreed to take him in at their newest building, which opened Dec. 7 exclusively for veterans.
Veterans Court is held 9:30 a.m. the second and fourth Friday of each month. In addition to probation, veterans can also receive social services, such as housing, education and legal assistance, job training, mental and substance abuse counseling.
“Believe it or not there are some veterans who do not even know what services they’re eligible for, so we coordinate our efforts with the state and federal Veteran Departments to get vets the services they need and are entitled to,” Kammerer said. “And just so taxpayers know, this court is not an additional cost to them because even if the court did not exist the vets would still have to go to court somewhere.
Here's my concern. These veterans get probation if they say they are guilty. They gamble with prison if they want to exercise their Constitutional rights and have a trial. That doesn't sound terribly fair. It smacks of what I have so many clients tell me now that they are facing an aggravated or enhanced charge based on their past. Inevitably, my clients, primarily black men, just like the veterans described above, pled guilty to something in the past because they wouldn't face prison. Now they understand that subsequent criminal charges, sometimes many years later, are subject to a longer prison sentence based on that long ago plea. Then there are the numerous requests to erase an old criminal conviction now that they are trying to secure a job, school, or, ironically, enter into the military or law enforcement.