Forsyth is one of four counties in North Carolina that has a special veterans court, along with Buncombe, Harnett and Cumberland counties. It’s now in its second year.
According to U.S. Census Bureau estimates, in 2016 about 7 percent of the county’s population - or just under 25,000 people - were veterans.
We wanted to find out how things are going with the court and what the future may hold so we spoke with Judge David Sipprell, who presides over the court, and Jemi Moore, the court’s coordinator.
“One of the reasons we’re able to exist is because there’s treatment available to veterans that’s not available to everyone, free of charge,” through the federal U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Sipprell says.
There’s also a moral justification.
“These are people that have served our country and put their lives on the line for us,” he says. “No one should be worse off for having served their country. And if they come back injured on our account, then we need to do what we can to make that right.”
Sipprell is a former Air Force attorney. That experience taught him the basics about what veterans go through and how to speak their language.
“If you’ve served in the United States military, we know that you’re a competent individual. You know how to be a team player, you know how to get things done, you have a sense of duty and honor about you,” he says. “Something has led you astray. We know if we can get you back to the core person you were in the military, then we can get you back up on your feet.”
There are currently about 15 veterans enrolled in the program, facing crimes including DUI and domestic violence.
There are two similar courts in Forsyth, a drug court and a mental health court. The veterans court is similar in that each defendant has some kind of substance abuse issue or mental health diagnosis that may be contributing to their problems.
But the range of offenses in the veterans court is broader, allowing for more serious crimes, Sipprell says.
“The idea behind all these courts is … rather than these people continuing to re-offend because they’ve got some substance abuse or mental health issue that causes the criminality, let’s address the underlying issue, then maybe we can get them out of the criminal justice system.”
Each participant is paired with a mentor, as often as possible someone from the same branch of the military. It’s a supportive relationship that goes beyond the courtroom, Moore says.
“Mentors and mentees have bonded over coffee and over Wake Forest football and basketball games...There have been times when we’ve had participants who really felt very intimidated standing in from of a judge… and it took having their mentor to stand there with them, pretty much hold their hand and say, ‘You can do this. Be strong.’”
Another key is working with established nonprofits, including Goodwill, Green Tree Community Center and a new partnership with Insight Human Services.
“We want them to have a community network they can rely on” that doesn’t involve formal interventions, Moore says.
The program received a little over $75,000 from the Governor’s Crime Commission to run the court for its first year, and the grant process is underway for year two.
But Sipprell says that only pays for the basics. There’s no money for things like incentives, case management or data collection. There’s a nonprofit - Forsyth County Veterans Court Inc. - that is providing assistance. It was organized by John Morgan, a retired vice admiral with the U.S. Navy.
“He proactively reached out to us,” Sipprell says. “And we sat down and had a meeting, and he quickly got on fundraising.”
Anyone interested in contributing or former service members who want to serve as mentors can find out more by contacting court coordinator Jemi Moore at (336) 779-6623.