Marion County judge helping Ukraine start a Veterans Treatment Court

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A Marion County judge is working with experts around the country to aid veterans in Ukraine

For 20 years, Judge Jim McCune has served on the bench in Marion County. His effort to help veterans in the court system has had a positive impact on the local community and is now reaching the global scale. 

McCune and a team around the country are working to provide a Veterans Treatment Court (VTC) for soldiers in Ukraine. 

“In Ukraine, the war zone is the neighborhood,” McCune said. “Here, you go to war, and come back.” 

The judiciary in Ukraine reached out to the National Judicial College in Reno, Nevada, in hopes of getting its own VTC. The goal of this special court is to help soldiers who have been to war and now suffer from PTSD and land in the criminal justice system. The war in Ukraine began when Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24.  

Mishkat Al Moumin, the managing director of academics at the college, took note of VTCs around the country to put together a team of consultants and provide the best outline for the Ukrainian soldiers.

Moumin said Ukraine hasn’t established any problem-solving courts like the VTC or mental health court in Marion County. 

“Such a court is crucial to help the country heal,” she said. “Courts are not a place where people will be punished but can be helped, served and supported through laws and policy.”

Moumin is from Iraq and lived there through four wars. She said the experience allows her to cater to a soldier’s needs. She left Iraq in 2005, but she still has trouble sleeping and can’t be around fireworks or loud voices after years of hearing explosion after explosion. 

Moumin and the team are currently working on finalizing materials to meet with Ukrainian judges in December over Zoom. McCune is one of those people. 

The VTC in Marion County was one of the first programs in the state of Florida and was started by McCune, who took office in 2002. 

Marion County Judge Jim McCune looks at a photo of one of the first veterans to graduate from Veterans Treatment Court published in The National Judicial College annual report in 2018. The veteran went to North Marion High School and served in Vietnam. He is the only one in the photos who made it home. (Allison Williams/WUFT News)

He said some judges are sensitive to the kinds of things they see in court; it weighed on his conscious to see some people always in and out of jail like a revolving door.

“You can choose to ignore them, or you cannot,” McCune said.

In 2009, he started the mental health court that’s still active today. After seeing the success of this program and its positive effects, another problem came to his attention.

“I started noticing people who looked different,” he said. “People standing at attention at the podium, saying ‘yes sir’ and ‘no sir.’”

They were veterans. 

This led him to Buffalo, New York, where Judge Robert Russell created the first VTC in the country in 2008. They worked together to emulate a program that McCune could bring back to Marion County. 

Most of the veterans had been arrested on impulse charges, like battery or assault, or for substance abuse. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, the prevalence of violence among individuals with post-traumatic stress disorder ranged from 7.5% to 8.6% among U.S. adults.

For veterans to graduate from VTC, they must plead guilty in the problem-solving court and spend at least a year in the program. Each treatment plan varies depending on the person, the facts of the case and their prior record. 

McCune said one of the biggest things they want to stress to the Ukrainians is having mentors, or “combat buddies,” for the soldiers. Everyone in VTC has a mentor to serve as a coach and confidant. 

J.K. Ginery, 79, has been a mentor for four years and has worked with 33 veterans. All but one graduated from the program, and to his knowledge, none have gone back to jail. 

Ginery served in the Army and was deployed to Berlin from 1962 through 1964. He never suffered from PTSD but said everything was different when he got home: sleep habits, the food he ate and his priorities. He noticed that even in the past five years, the stigma around PTSD has drastically changed, and it’s easier for veterans to be open about what they’ve gone through.

He said he wanted to be a safe space for his mentees, and anything they said would stay between the two of them unless it was criminal. He’s still in touch with some of them. 

“If it works in Ukraine, there could be a lot more peaceful countries that get involved in Veterans Treatment Court,” he said. 

There are five focus points that will be presented to the Ukrainians during the December meeting: the role of judges, best practices, legal framework, types of cases and bureaucracy. Although McCune is retiring on Jan. 2, he is planning the legal framework of the program.

“For me, it was never about punishment,” he said. “It was about getting them to wholeness from what happened during their service time.” 

About Allison Williams

Allison is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.

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