SYCAMORE – Since its inception in 2019, a DeKalb County court program that offers substance abuse and mental health resources as an alternative to significant jail time has helped more than two dozen local veterans find their footing.
The program is run out of the DeKalb County State’s Attorney’s Office and led by prosecutor – and veteran – Dan Regna. Since 2019, the program has accepted 40 veterans to date.
Regna, of Woodstock, joined the DeKalb County State’s Attorney’s Office in 2017. A West Point Military Academy graduate who served most of his Army years before 9/11, including six months in Panama, Regna said he’s naturally drawn to veteran causes.
“I think the veteran program we have really allows them to dig back to a better time in their life,” Regna said. “There’s that sense of patriotism, civic responsibility, duty, honor, country, which is West Point’s motto. Veterans carry that inside of them. The ones that get in the system – it’s still in them, it’s just clouded somewhat, I think. When they get in that program ... I think it definitely brings back that sense of pride or duty.”
The program is named the Stacia Hollinshead Veterans Diversion Program after Hollinshead, a U.S. Army veteran and prosecutor in the DeKalb County State’s Attorney’s Office who was shot to death by her ex-husband in Wisconsin in March 2019. The Beaver Dam man was sentenced to life in prison.
Hollinshead was a Northern Illinois University law school graduate and a mother. DeKalb County State’s Attorney Rick Amato said he named the program after Hollinshead in her honor and to continue her legacy of service.
Much like the treatment court programs already offered to eligible participants in DeKalb County court, the veterans program is meant to provide those facing charges with a chance to get their life back in order. Noneligible charges include violent crimes such as murder or sex crimes, officials said.
“We can’t say the reason you’re like that is because of your service, necessarily, but there’s a lot of residual issues that come out of military service: substance abuse issues, mental health issues,” Regna said. “There are a lot of extremely stressful times. ... There’s a recognition that these people served their country, and the issues are attributable in many ways to when they came out of the service and that adjustment.”
For those who’ve served, reentering civilian life can bring with it complexities that aren’t easy to address, court officials said.
“They are exposed to every amount of trauma possible [in service], and in certain situations more than others, but it affects them, and when they come back after service, a lot of times they get left behind,” Amato said. “So they find themselves in situations and in situations that could involve substances and other abuses that are masking these other areas where they need help.”
The program works in conjunction with the DeKalb County Veterans Assistance Commission, Amato said.
“We’ve had a whole range of veterans,” Regna said. “We get some active-duty people, some very recent veterans who saw a lot of significant combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, but then we get ones from Vietnam 30 or 40 years ago, or even during my time during the Cold War era who didn’t necessarily see hard combat.”
How it works
If a military veteran is charged with a crime, they notify their attorney of their veteran status immediately. The program is offered to all eligible veterans, including active-duty members. Their attorney notifies prosecutors if the veteran wishes to participate in the diversion program.
The veteran submits an application and is required to undergo various program procedures, including a mental health and substance abuse evaluation. The results of that evaluation are used by prosecutors to recommend a course of treatment.
Once accepted into the program, each veteran is assigned a veteran judicial liaison – a caseworker – funded through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. The caseworker acts as an advocate and accountability support person for the veteran throughout the program, attends every court hearing and conducts a full assessment of each veterans’ needs.
Program steps can look like substance abuse and addiction treatment, rehabilitation, psychiatric evaluations or mental illness assessments, connecting veterans to regional health facilities for counseling or other needs.
It’s about rebuilding a person’s foundation so that when they leave the system they’re healthier, more stable and less likely to reoffend, Regna said.
“Every veteran gets a door B option,” Regna said. “Some are just simple misdemeanors, other are felonies, property crimes, theft, forgery, drug possession, DUIs – we see a good number of DUIs; most of them have substance abuse components. ... We tailor each veteran when we get that assessment back, and we look at the nature of the crime, what’s going on, and they get that door B.”
There’s still accountability for any wrongdoing, Regna said.
Door B requires each program participant to plead guilty to their most serious charge. If they complete the program, they get a mitigated sentence. That can look like reducing a felony to a misdemeanor, which can mean little or no jail time, or sometimes dismissing a charge outright.
Is it helping?
“It’s definitely been a very good thing for the court system as an alternative,” Regna said. “Definitely all the veterans that have qualified and participated, it’s individually benefited all of them greatly.”
To date, 40 veterans have participated in the Veterans Diversion Program, including 26 who have successfully completed it. That’s also including eight active-duty military personnel.
Regna said he’s unaware of any program graduates who’ve reentered the system or been charged with another offense.
“I keep waiting for that one or two blow-up cases that call into question should we be doing this, but it’s like all of them have succeeded to the degree they’re not coming back into our system in any way,” Regna said.