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Akron court program helps veterans caught in criminal justice system get back on their feet

Posted at 7:07 PM, Nov 11, 2020
and last updated 2020-11-11 19:28:31-05

AKRON, Ohio — Ohio is home to the sixth largest population of veterans in the country, and sometimes our vets can get caught up in the criminal justice system. But there is specialized court in Summit County is helping them succeed.

It only takes a minute after you meet Morgan Frye before he tells you about his beautiful family

“I do everything those boys need,” Morgan says, smiling.

Morgan isn’t just a dad. He is also a veteran.

“I was a infantryman, mortar-man, Eleven Charlie Eleven Bravo, in the Army National Guard,” he said.

Morgan joined right after high school, following in the footsteps of his grandfathers. Five years in the Army National Guard, deployed for 9 months to Afghanistan.

And when he came home — Morgan was different. His family, friends noticing before he ever did.

“This isn’t war time, you’re home, you should be safe. But I didn’t feel like that. I still felt that, ‘hey I could die any day.’”

That anxiety and anger escalated one day — resulted in an assault charge after a fight his girlfriend.

“It was dark to be honest, to be 100%. That anger, that confusion and determined to fight on, you weren’t going anywhere. Someone had to help you and I’m glad I got the help,” Morgan said.

The help — coming from inside a courtroom.

Akron’s “Valor Court” program — designed to assist veterans caught up in the criminal justice system. Akron Municipal Court Judge Jerry Larson heads the program.

“If you have an alcohol or substance abuse problem, let’s try to get rid of that. if there are other issues, let’s address those. Let’s try to seek stable housing, stable employment,” Judge Larson explained.

And one thing Judge Larson wants to make clear — “A lot of our service individuals, because they did not see combat do not consider themselves veterans. That’s inaccurate. If you served in the military and you’re discharged, you are a veteran.”

The goal of Valor Court is to get people rehabbed and back into society, instead of adding charges to their records and tossing them in jail.

“Studies have shown the criminal justice system has to evolve, so we have taken a proactive approach —especially in municipal court — to link people up to those who are willing to help,” said Jon Groza, bailiff and Valor Court Coordinator.

The program can take up to two years to complete and consists of an entire team — the court, Veterans Service Commission, Veterans Affairs, all working together.

The program is completely voluntary and has an 87% success rate. It deals with misdemeanors -- primarily substance abuse. There are two tracks — probationary or intervention in lieu of conviction. That means if they successfully complete the program, their record will be sealed — an option any citizen in Ohio has.

Furthermore, data shows those who successfully completed the Municipal court program, only 16.7% reoffended in Akron. And of those who were terminated from the program or left voluntarily, 57.1% reoffended in Akron.

Morgan graduated just weeks ago — and says the entire time, he felt like he was surrounded by people who really, truly cared.

“People looked and said ‘You served for us, let us serve for you,’” Morgan said. He is now working at a steady job he loves, and living happily with his girlfriend and their two young sons.