CAMO Treatment court

Attorneys, police and clinicians from California and Arizona observe CAMO Treatment Court with District Judge Mary Jane Knisely on Wednesday. The local court was named one of four model programs among the more than 350 treatment courts in the U.S. that serve veteran offenders.

LARRY MAYER, Gazette Staff

Judge Mary Jane Knisely’s Yellowstone County Veterans Treatment Court is one of the top four in the nation, a model the 350 or so similar treatment courts across the country can now visit and learn from.

On Wednesday, a delegation of 13 court officials and treatment providers from Santa Rosa, California, and Bullhead City, Arizona, visited Knisely’s special court.

One by one, veterans who may otherwise be jailed for a drunk driving or drug offense checked in with Knisely, and she asked each one, “What can we do for you today?”

“What we see here is not what we have,” said Judge Andy Wick of the California Superior Court in Sonoma County. “This is what it looks like when services are seamless. We have many of your services, but they’re not lined up like yours are.”

Wick said the visiting officials were all given reports on each veteran who appeared Wednesday.

“Some of them have been in the program only 60 or 90 days, and — oh my gosh — it was amazing to see what they’d done with their lives in that short time,” he said.

These treatment courts take a lot of time and effort, and that’s OK, said Michael Perry, Sonoma County’s chief deputy public defender. “If I have a client named John, I tell him he’s going to become John 2.0.”

It’s good that the Yellowstone County program has access to many services,” Perry said. “Without them, people don’t know where their help will come from.”

In court Wednesday, one veteran spoke emotionally about the tragic mistake he made when, after drinking, he offered another person a ride home. An accident they were in killed the passenger.

Knisley told him, “The purpose of this court is to highlight your service, what you’ve done and what you’re going to do, and not focus on your offense.”

During a Wednesday ceremony commemorating Knisley’s Courts Assisting Military Offenders (CAMO) program and the county’s other mentor courts, Jeff Kushner, Montana’s drug court coordinator, read a letter from Montana Supreme Court Chief Justice Mike McGrath. The justice called CAMO Court and other mentor courts “an inspiration and an example to Montana (treatment) courts and now courts around the nation.”

Retired Maj. Gen. Butch Tate, chief counsel for the Alexandria, Va.-based National Association of Drug Court Professionals and a retired Army judge advocate general, praised Knisley and the program.

“This is a big deal for you and your court and for your veterans, but it comes with a lot of extra work. You’re now in position to help others understand best practices and the importance of standards, incentives and sanctions” as well as “helping others regain hope and live a life of sobriety and being clean, a lifestyle of recovery.”

Tate, a lawyer with a 31-year military career, said what he observed Wednesday morning in Knisely’s courtroom “inspired me to do better.”

“Veterans treatment courts represent the absolute best of government, the courts and the community,” he said. “I have never seen those large entities come together better than they do in treatment court.”

What Knisely does is “restore hope and unlock the potential in people,” Tate said.

Knisely herself became emotional while accepting a plaque from Tate, assigning most of the program's credit to court employees and program partners, including Billings Police Officer Jared Lausch, a one-year team member and military veteran whom Tate called “a balance of accountability and empathy.”

“We address the often invisible wounds of war, and so this is a great honor for our team,” Kinsely said.

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City Government Reporter

City reporter for The Billings Gazette.