by Rosalie Murphy
Court has just been called to order on a chilly October Tuesday, and Judge Amy Corrigall Jones invites four people to the bench. Three men and one woman file up and stand at attention, feet hip-width apart, their hands clasped behind their backs. All four are dressed in button-ups and hoodies, much more casual than most in the imposing courthouse.
“Tell me something good that’s happened to you or a positive decision you’ve made since the last time I saw you,” Judge Jones prompts, as she will prompt more than a dozen people today.
One of the four takes two swift steps toward the bench and produces a drivers license. The rest of the room cheers as she does a quick end-zone dance on the polished courtroom floor, where lawyers will be pacing in an hour or two. She’s gotten her license back.
All four of these people are veterans who have been charged with felonies. But rather than proceeding through the justice system in the usual way — a trial or plea bargain, followed by prison or probation — they’re participating in Valor Court.
Valor Court was established in 2013 by Judge Jones of Summit County Common Pleas Court, which handles felony cases, and Judge Jerry Larson of Akron Municipal Court, which handles misdemeanors. The court offers an alternative path to veterans who are charged with certain felonies. Instead of a traditional sentence, they can spend 12 to 18 months participating in Valor Court.
The four-phase curriculum is founded on the idea that veterans face particular challenges that other people do not. Valor Court participants may be ordered to meet with probation officers, take drug tests, seek healthcare, attend sobriety meetings, obtain stable housing and employment, or whatever else Judge Jones thinks is necessary.
Valor Court’s participants also have access to a wealth of resources, compared to most people moving through the justice system. The court has a dedicated probation officer, who is herself a veteran. Representatives from the VA attend each weekly session and can connect participants to healthcare and benefits. Mentors — other veterans and some Valor Court grads — sit in the jury room, waiting to coach participants one-on-one.
“In my previous experiences (in court), you were shackled, you’re in your county jail uniform, you’re herded around,” says Chris Stahr, an Army veteran who graduated from Valor Court in November 2017. “I know that we’ve done something wrong and maybe we deserve that, but at the same time, you’re not treated like a human. You feel less. You feel defensive. You don’t trust them, and it’s me versus them, me versus the world.”
Stahr, an Akron native, enlisted in the Army in 2004 and served in Iraq. After his honorable discharge and treatment for alcoholism, a doctor prescribed him Percocet to treat a third-degree burn. Then he kept using. Stealing from family and friends funded the habit. He considered suicide.
In the spring of 2011, after a burglary spree that hit around 20 storefronts, Stahr was arrested. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison.
Five years later, his good behavior triggered a new sentencing hearing. Stahr’s defense attorney found out about his Army service and recommended he be placed in Valor Court.
“I walked into the court, and just, the feeling was different. My impression was, ‘They’re on my side. They’re not against me. I can trust them, I can let my guard down,’ and I think that’s so important,” Stahr says.
Today, Stahr works at an addiction recovery center. He’s developing a kind of after-care program for Valor Court graduates, which aims to find employers willing to hire veterans with criminal records, help veterans claim GI Bill benefits, and provide fellowship.
“I got out (of the Army) and I did have some symptoms of PTSD. I just felt alienated. I felt different than everyone else, and I wasn’t seeking out veterans to say, ‘Oh, you freaked out in traffic? That happened to me.’ It’s so important to be in an environment where you’re not judged, you’re not stigmatized, and you’ve got someone saying, ‘Hey, I know what it’s like, this is what helped me, this is how I got through it,’” Stahr says.
Stahr’s initiative is one of many expansions that will be funded by a $1.8 million grant from the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. The new funding will also pay for case managers, services at Oriana House, and a dual-diagnosis mental health and substance abuse therapy group administered by the Summa Health Traumatic Stress Center.
“Now that I’m back out here, still lurking in my mind are those self-doubts: That I was less than, that I was a bad person,” Stahr says. “To be treated like a human in there helped my self-esteem. It filled me full of promise.”
During one October Valor Court session, two participants arrive in shackles, as Chris once arrived in court. One will soon be transferred to an addiction recovery center. The other faces the judge.
“I’m thrilled to see you,” she says. “You may not be happy to see me, but I’m thrilled to see you.”
The inmate reads a letter, a brief and eloquent note about addiction and hubris. “I’m very glad to see you,” Jones reiterates. Her face darkens. “I’m glad you’re healthy, and I’m glad you’re alive.”
Then, a sideways glance and a wry smile. It’s the day before the Mega Millions jackpot is to be drawn. “I have a good feeling. Just like the lottery.”
Judge Jones is tall — she used to coach basketball at Hoban and St. Vincent-St. Mary — and she typically wears her blonde hair loose and curled. She often wears heels and audible bracelets. When participants meet her, Jones says, “People are like, ‘Aw, look at her, isn’t she soft and nice.’”
She quickly dispenses with that notion.
In the courtroom, Jones is direct, uncompromising, affable and witty, often all at once.
“If you’ve ever had the experience of being in front of a judge, it’s incredibly intimidating,” says Valor Court Community Development Director KT Hampton. “To have someone sit up there and say hey, we make mistakes, it’s okay… I call her ‘coach,’ too, because not only is she talented at coaching the game of basketball, but because she coaches at life.”
At an October session, Jones speaks deliberately to one Valor Court participant she needs to criticize — “I have a problem with where you’re living. I have a problem with your positive screens” — and swiftly orders him to move into a halfway house and send her daily reports. Then she follows it up with tough love — “You need to, and you are capable of, making decisions in your best interest that are healthy.”
Sometimes she probes, gently, asking questions to which she already has the answer, to see what participants will say. “You need to be honest with me,” she implores a few participants. She often adds, “You need to be honest with yourself.”
When she finds out someone is using, Jones can get heated. Your dealer doesn’t care about you, she insists. We do.
“My grandfather was a veteran and he killed himself, and so my dad suffered through that. My brother suffered from chemical dependency,” Jones tells The Devil Strip. “I believe very strongly in helping (these) populations, and I believe it’s those underlying issues that always drive folks to enter the justice system.”
There are 49 people currently working through Valor Court. According to data provided by Hampton, 31 are Army veterans. Ten served in the Navy, five in the Air Force, and three in the Marines. Five participants are women. Fifteen are Black. Five are LGBTQ+.
So far, 50 people have graduated from Valor Court. Jones says more than 90 percent of participants finish the program and fewer than 10 percent of graduates have been charged with crimes since.
According to the most recent data available from the state, about 30 percent of people released from Ohio prisons reoffend within three years.
Judge Jones was appointed to her post in 2012 by Gov. John Kasich and kept the seat in the 2012 election. She is running unopposed this year.
When someone graduates from Valor Court, Jones calls them to the bench at the very beginning of the ceremony. She hands them a commemorative coin. Avery, the Labrador-Golden Retriever that comforts victims in the prosecutor’s office, carries a mug in his mouth to the graduate. Jones wishes them well and asks them to come back and serve as mentors.
When Stahr graduated, the prosecutor’s office sent him a gift basket.
“The last time the prosecutor’s office gave me something, it was an indictment,” Stahr jokes. “I’d already been convinced that this was different. But that just blew me away.”
Rosalie Murphy is Editor-in-Chief of The Devil Strip.