Columbia Basin Veteran’s Center celebrates first graduating class of Veteran’s Therapeutic Court

KENNEWICK, Wash. — Tuesday, June 15th was a special day for the Columbia Basin Veteran’s Center. It was the first forum meeting since the coronavirus shutdowns, the 2nd anniversary of the Veteran’s Therapeutic Court (VTC),  and the first celebration of 15 graduates from the VTC.

The VTC was founded in 2014 by the Public Safety Tax. While other courts around the state and the nation exist in this model, it created the first therapy court for veterans in Benton County.

“Spokane has had a similar court for eleven years,” Mentor Coordinator Tom Mattis said. Spokane’s court has seen over a 50% fall in criminal activity from past participants.

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Participants in the program go through a four-phase program to exonerate their records. “In the program, there’s a real opportunity not to go to a rehab facility,” Steve Lehto, a mentor in the program, said. “But to last for a year, complete the program, really dig in. It becomes a lifestyle change.”

Lehto was involved with a similar court system in Tulsa, Arizona. He relocated to the Tri-Cities three years ago, and has worked with the Columbia Basin Veterans Center since.

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The program is designed to take a while on purpose. Participants in the program are in a non-adversarial program, and sometimes that takes time for them to realize that. “Some get it, understand it, take off. Some have been in the system for a long time [and] don’t trust it,” Lehto explained. “It takes a long time, takes over a year, so it has to take a enough time to be a life style change versus a short rehab stint.”

The first phase includes weekly court hearings and constant collaboration with VTC members, from judges to mentors. As time goes on, participants continue to regularly contact their mentor, set goals, and work with the courts to find the best plan for them to set their life on a good path.

“Sometimes the public thinks that it’s an easy out for the veterans, literally, the things that they have to put up with for a year, makes it sometimes tougher than serving a jail term,” Lehto said.

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