On Tuesday, Oct. 10th, House Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, and House Majority Leader John Bell, R-Wayne, held a press conference to highlight continued funding in the state budget for the Veterans Justice Initiative (VJI).
The initiative was “launched by The Independence Fund, which assists law enforcement agencies, first responders, and frontline workers to understand the nuances and true scope of veterans’ mental health obstacles after they return home from service,” according to a press release from Bell’s office.
In addition to Bell and Moore, VJI’s executive director Clark Pennington, Sens. Todd Johnson, R-Union, Dave Craven, R-Randolph, Reps. Jeff Zenger, R-Forsyth, Reece Pyrtle, R-Rockingham, Charlie Miller, R-Brunswick, Dr. Tim Reeder, R-Pitt, North Carolina Supreme Court Justice Phil Berger Jr., regional VJI staff, and law enforcement officers who have benefited from the initiative were in attendance.
The initiative “seeks to avoid unnecessary criminalization and mental illness, substance abuse and incarceration by ensuring that eligible veterans, when coming into contact with the criminal justice system, get access to services [needed] to avoid that,” Moore said.
VJI is a public-private partnership that received $1.5 million in the state budget this year. Speaker Moore repeatedly emphasized that this is something they believe will ultimately save lives.
“North Carolina made a commitment many years ago to put our veterans first,” said Majority Leader Bell. “We want to make sure North Carolina is the most military-friendly state in the country.”
Pennington said the goal of the program is to intervene as early in the criminal process as possible and that they have already trained over 3,000 first responders and law enforcement. Pennington thanked a bipartisan coalition of legislators for their continued support and for passing a budget that “puts veterans first.”
Pennington also provided some context for why he feels it is important to take extra precautions and provide extra help for veterans entering the criminal process, citing much higher suicide rates and behavioral health issues in the veteran community.
The Independence Fund first launched its Veterans Justice Initiative (VJI) program in early 2022 in partnership with the state of North Carolina through funding provided by the No Veteran Left Behind Act (NVLB). The goal of NVLB was to help confront deeply-rooted mental health and substance abuse issues within the veteran community.
Earlier this year, Supreme Court Justice Phil Berger Jr. proposed the idea of having a checkbox on the Affidavit of Indigency form for veterans to check every time they walk into a courtroom charged as a criminal. This would enable the court to notify relevant individuals that the veteran needs services, such as medication, appointments with the VA, housing vouchers, or counseling services.
The Independence Fund partnered with Berger on the checkbox initiative.
About The Independence Fund:
Founded in 2007, The Independence Fund (501c3) is committed to serving the Veteran community by providing innovative programs and services to support the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual independence of our servicemembers, combat Veterans, their caregivers, families, and those allies who served in combat alongside our troop. The mission is accomplished through innovative mobility and adaptive technologies and therapies for combat Veterans; suicide prevention; caregiver and family support; and Veteran advocacy with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, other government agencies, federal and state legislators, and other partners. To learn more about The Independence Fund and its initiatives, please visit www.independencefund.org.