Chief Justice Sharon Kennedy, the eleventh Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Ohio, is a committed advocate for Ohio’s veterans. First elected to serve on the state’s high court in 2012 and re-elected in 2014 and 2020, she began her judicial career at the Butler County Court of Common Pleas, Domestic Relations Division, and throughout her time on the bench, she has dedicated time to helping our nation’s heroes.
In honor of Veterans Day, the Foundation was pleased to speak with the Chief Justice about Ohio’s veterans and the upcoming ninth annual Veterans Summit.
Q: You have led a life of service, first as a police officer, then as a domestic relations judge, and now as the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Does your lifetime of service inform your interest in veterans, who have given the ultimate gift of service?
My interest in serving the needs of justice-involved veterans was inspired by the work of Justice Evelyn Lundberg-Stratton and the stories of veterans across Ohio and the needs veterans’ organizations identified to help returning heroes.
Justice Stratton is an unwavering advocate for treatment dockets, and her retirement from the court left a tremendous void, particularly in growing veterans’ treatment programs. It was conversations with Justice Stratton that inspired me to work to grow veterans’ treatment dockets in Ohio. And it was conversations with veterans and veterans’ service organizations that helped me to understand the needs of justice-involved veterans.
Two million members of our armed forces served in Afghanistan or Iraq as part of the Global War on Terrorism over the course of twenty years. Less than one percent of Americans serve in our armed forces, so the service members who served in Iraq or Afghanistan, a voluntary military force, served multiple tours of duty. Seventy-seven percent of post-9/11 veterans were deployed, and 33 percent were deployed three or more times. The result was a high incidence of the invisible wounds of war: post-traumatic stress, traumatic brain injury, depression, and self-medication. Thirty-six percent of post-9/11 veterans report that they have suffered post-traumatic stress.
In 2008, Judge Robert Russell of Buffalo, NY, noticed an increase in the number of veterans coming into the criminal justice system. Recognizing that significant numbers of veterans were returning from combat zones experiencing symptoms related to traumatic brain injuries, PTSD, and depression, Judge Russell designed and implemented the nation’s first Veterans Treatment Court to help address the unique difficulties facing justice-involved veterans. An important aspect of his program involved helping veterans utilize the benefits and treatment available to them as a result of their service, including Veterans Administration (VA) resources that might not be otherwise available at the local level.
Two years later, Judge Jerry Ault of the Mansfield Municipal Court established the third veterans’ treatment docket in the nation and the first in Ohio. During that same time, Justice Stratton was appointed to a Veterans Administration committee to help create the Veterans Justice Outreach program. She also began the Veterans Wrap Around Project, a management tool that organized the different resources available to justice-involved veterans. By 2012, Ohio had added five veterans’ treatment dockets.
Veterans and veteran service organizations recognize that service members struggling to reintegrate into civilian life will, unfortunately, encounter law enforcement and end up in the criminal justice system. Working with the service organizations, I began an outreach program to educate judges about the veterans’ treatment model and the specialized services available through the Veterans Administration and the work of the Veterans Justice Outreach Coordinator. Today, there are 29 certified treatment courts serving the needs of justice-involved veterans in 22 Ohio counties. Judges without a certified treatment court are finding alternative pathways to access specialized treatment for justice-involved veterans. But there is more each of us can do to help a veteran come wholly home.
Q: You are a leader in the Lean Forward Initiative, which has successfully expanded the number of Supreme Court-certified veterans courts. What goals does the Lean Forward Initiative plan to tackle next?
The Lean Forward Initiative is not the work of one; it is the work of a team — of dedicated multidisciplinary professionals committed to addressing veterans’ treatment needs. The long-term goal of the Lean Forward Initiative is to make wraparound treatment programs available and accessible to veterans before veterans become justice-involved.
Like no two people are the same, no two veterans are the same. We must meet the veterans where they are. Treatment is complex when helping those who face a multitude of potential obstacles — physical pain, survivor’s guilt, post-traumatic stress, and undiagnosed brain injuries, among them. Our mission is not complete until every veteran who returns home comes wholly home.
Q: The ninth annual Veterans Summit will be held on November 16. You will give the opening remarks. What messages will you relay?
The theme of this year’s Lean Forward Summit is “Intercept 0/1: Reaching Veterans Before They Enter the Criminal Justice System.” My message is that Intercept 0/1 is the pathway to obtaining the long-term goal of the Lean Forward initiative: no veteran becomes justice-involved.
The idea behind Intercept Zero is to connect veterans who have mental health and substance use disorders with services before they have contact with the criminal justice system. Veterans obtain treatment and services when they return to Ohio from the tarmac. That way, the veteran is never intercepted by law enforcement – 0.
Intercept One involves a response by law enforcement and emergency services. How they respond to a veteran with mental health and substance abuse disorders will set in motion a whole series of events — good or bad. With training, that confrontation can lead to diversion from the criminal justice system and into treatment services.
For more information about this year’s summit, go to: https://www.veteransummit.mightycrow.com/.
Q: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
If you are interested in helping veterans come wholly home or you are interested in serving those who served you, there are volunteer opportunities at www.volunteer.va.gov, at one of the Ohio Veterans Homes, or at your local veterans clinic.
If you are a lawyer interested in helping a veteran, contact your local legal aid. Legal aid provides civil legal services to veterans in all 88 counties, and some legal aids have a federal grant specifically to serve homeless veterans. As veterans’ treatment dockets heal the veteran from the invisible wounds of war, there is a partner to help put the rest of the veteran’s life back on track. Safe housing, improved family stability, and increased financial security aren’t just for some people – it is for all people, including those who have momentarily lost their way. For information about how to become accredited to represent veterans and their families on their VA benefits claims, visit www.va.gov/OGC/docs/Accred/HowtoApplyforAccreditation.pdf.