DANVILLE — On a recent afternoon in a Vermilion County courtroom, Associate Judge Karen Wall called Greg Mills to the defendant’s table.
“Tell me about your week,” Wall inquired of the 59-year-old Danville man, after he’d taken a seat next to his attorney, Public Defender Mike Mara.
“It wasn’t too good,” Mills said, explaining he received news that a cousin and then a close aunt had passed away within days of each other.
“I self-medicated trying to deal with my problems,” he confessed.
Wall reviewed a list of tasks Mills had been required to do this past week, including attend a substance-abuse program, an individual counseling session and group therapy at the Veterans Affairs Illiana Health Care System in Danville; attend a 12-step recovery program at a local church; and take a drug test.
Then she reviewed a report from Mills’ probation officer, Tara Woodard.
“You tested positive (for drugs and alcohol) on Monday,” Wall said. “That’s how many weeks in a row now?
“I’m really concerned ... because you’ve used four weeks in a row,” she continued. “I want to know, do you really want to be in this program?”
“Yes, ma’am. I do,” Mills replied softly.
Before concluding the hearing, the judge issued Mills a sanction.
“I want you to write an essay telling me why you want to be here,” she said sternly, before going over his other requirements for the coming week. “I think if I keep you busy enough, you’ll stay away from substances. I hope next week goes better for you.”
The hearing took place in veterans court, one of three special probation programs in Vermilion County.
Drug court was launched in 2001 and mental health court followed in 2011, both under the leadership of now-retired Circuit Judge Michael Clary.
Although a diversion program specifically for veterans was discussed on and off, planning was initiated by Craig DeArmond when he served as Vermilion County’s presiding judge. After DeArmond was appointed to Illinois’ Fourth District Appellate Court, he tapped Wall to head up the program.
Other team members include Mara, Woodard, State’s Attorney Jacqueline Lacy and Rebecca Sanders, a licensed clinical social worker and one of two veterans justice outreach coordinators for the Illiana system’s 32-county service area.
Like the other specialty programs, veterans court is a diversion program — this one designed to help men and women who have served in the military and have become involved in the criminal justice system get the help they need to address the problems that landed them there — and hopefully keep them from re-offending in the future.
Wall said participants are nonviolent offenders who have been convicted of crimes that are usually drug- and/or alcohol-related, domestic violence, theft or burglary, among other things. Oftentimes, they stem from drug and/or alcohol abuse and/or mental health issues.
If they’re determined to be eligible for the program and willing to participate, a felony judge can sentence them to the program as part of their probation, in some cases allowing them to avoid prison.
“They are usually related to their service,” Wall said of the substance abuse and mental health issues, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury and depression.
“We provide them with wraparound services to address their mental health, medical and any substance-abuse problems, as well as any homelessness, education, unemployment or other needs they have,” Sanders added.
“They can get VA services regardless of whether they’re involved in the court,” she continued. “But this is an intensive program that really holds them accountable. And our goal is to help them avoid incarceration and further penetration into the criminal justice system.”
Judge Wall: Real work takes place outside of the courtroom
The four-phase program is 12 to 24 months long, depending on how quickly participants move through the phases. They must complete each phase before they can move on to the next.
Starting out, participants must attend court hearings at 3 p.m. every Thursday.
“It’s a time to check in with them on a weekly basis,” Wall said, adding her team meets ahead of the hearing to go over participants’ behavior the past week and make recommendations for the upcoming one. “I think it’s also important to hear from the defendant and give them a chance to talk about how they think their week went. Sometimes, they will have a different perspective.”
The real work takes place outside of the courtroom, Wall said.
Participants can’t use drugs or alcohol and must undergo scheduled and random testing. They must follow their individualized treatment plan, designed in consultation with Illiana staff.
Treatment may include participating in the hospital’s Substance Abuse Treatment Program, individual and/or group counseling and attending a 12-step recovery program. Participants are given calendars to keep track of their court dates and appointments.
They must also abide by a curfew and comply with all laws and the terms of their probation. They may also be required to continue their education and find a job.
“They have to contact us if they have a relapse, mental health crisis or hospitalization,” Wall said.
If they’ve made progress, the judge rewards them at their weekly hearing — sometimes with curfew adjustments, travel permits, a waiver of court fees or moving to the next phase of the program.
“We’ve even given out gas cards and gift cards,” she said.
If they’ve relapsed or broken the rules, Wall imposes an immediate sanction that can include anything from an earlier curfew to increased counseling and therapy to jail time.
“If you’re a longtime substance abuser, some relapses are expected,” she said. But if it continues or they’re not making an effort “then maybe they need to sit in jail and think about whether they want to be in the program or not.”
If participants re-offend and/or violate their probation, Wall said they can be removed from the program, their probation can be revoked and they can be given a new, likely stiffer, sentence by a felony judge.
Mills: ‘It’s been a struggle. But I’m going to get it together’
Mills started the Vermilion County program in late August and is one of two participants currently. The first one was hospitalized but is set to return in October. A third is scheduled to start soon.
Mills, who was born and raised in Indianapolis, started drinking alcohol socially at 15 when he and his buddies would gather at a neighborhood park and play basketball. He continued drinking when he joined the Army after graduating from high school.
“There’s not a lot to do on base,” said Mills, who served as a radio teletype operator at Fort Hood, Texas, and in Germany. “When you get off work, you chip in your money and get some beer and whiskey.”
After his discharge in 1983, Mills returned to Indianapolis to work for Indianapolis Public Schools in maintenance and rekindled his relationship with his high school sweetheart. They married in 1988, the same year he first tried cocaine at a party.
Mills was able to hide his alcohol and drug use from his wife, an engineer with RCA, for a while. Then she walked in and caught him using. He promised to quit but continued the abuse, which led to the couple’s divorce in 1996.
“I really didn’t see it as a problem until I started having legal issues,” Mills said.
Mills’ driver’s license was suspended when he got his first DUI in 1997 coming home from a Pacers game. The second time in 2003, when he side-swiped a vehicle while driving home after a night of drinking with friends, he received a year of probation, had his license suspended again and spent 20 days in jail until he could post bond.
“That’s when I got help,” said Mills, who went to outpatient treatment at the Roudebush VA Medical Center in Indianapolis.
In 2007, he entered an inpatient program at the Illiana facility and upon completion, decided to make a fresh start in Danville away from old friends and haunts that triggered his abuse. But Mills, who was on disability for several health problems by now, eventually picked up his old habits — and broke the law after he became inebriated.
Mills said he vowed to get sober after he was sentenced to a short prison stint in 2015 for a retail theft subsequent offense the year before. But after his release, he relapsed again and picked up the same charge in 2018.
After pleading guilty in August, Mills said he was relieved when Circuit Judge Nancy Fahey sentenced him to probation and gave him a chance to participate in veterans court.
“It’s intense,” he said. “I have to go to court ... see the probation officer ... get drug tested every week. But one of things I appreciate is their encouragement, and they’ve directed me to resources.
“It’s been a struggle,” he added of staying sober. “But I’m going to get it together. Next week, (Wall) is going to say I did a good job.”
Though still in Phase 1, Mills said he’s optimistic he will complete the program. At some point, he’d like to mentor others who are going through it.
“Being a veteran is like being in a fraternity,” he said. “We’ve got to be there for one another.”
Veterans: ‘Probably one of the most rehabilitative groups’
Sanders believes that veterans court graduates could be wonderful mentors to their peers. She’s also the VA’s liaison for Sangamon County’s program, and a coworker works with programs in McLean and Peoria counties.
While two people have graduated from the Sangamon County program, she said “it’s still too early in the process to tell if that will happen.”
Ford County participates in the 11th Circuit’s circuitwide program, based at the McLean County Courthouse in Bloomington, said Ellen Maxey, Ford County’s director of court services. The circuit also includes Livingston, Logan and Woodford counties. Since it started 1 years ago, two or three veterans have graduated.
While there aren’t any Ford County participants yet, Maxey said her county has started to screen for them. And thanks to the program grant, she added organizers are working on setting up a video-conferencing system to ease transportation barriers for those entering the program.
Champaign, Douglas and Piatt don’t have the program because their number of eligible participants is too small to justify the cost.
However, in Champaign County “we do have individuals who are veterans who are admitted into drug court,” Champaign County Presiding Judge Tom Difanis said, adding they are able to get any substance-abuse and mental health services they may need that way.
Difanis said the University of Illinois’ veterans program also assists those defendants at times.
Wall said she hopes word spreads about Vermilion County’s program and participation among veterans who have lost their way due to substance abuse and/or mental health issues grows.
“I believe that of any segment of our society, veterans are probably one of the most rehabilitative groups,” she said. “Generally, they have been productive members of society at one point in their lives. Once they have experienced that, it’s likely that they can return to that.
“If we can help them become productive members of society again, we should. These people have served their country, and they deserve that chance. And it reduces crime and stress on our criminal justice system.”