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Convicted veteran tries to avoid prison

A circuit judge told a veteran charged in several local thefts that the government has let him down in his need for mental health and drug treatment services.

James Edward Russell, 33, of Charleston, has spent the past year in jail after failing to successfully complete the adult Drug Court program. He pleaded guilty to committing two robberies in Kanawha City.

In 2011, Russell stole cash and property from Budget Tapes and a gold ring from a woman at the McDonalds restaurant.

In court Tuesday, Russell, a father of three, asked Kanawha Circuit Judge Jennifer Bailey for another chance to avoid prison. His attorney, Brian Cook, said Russell suffers from multiple addictions and mental health problems caused by injuries suffered in combat in Iraq.

"He has these two felony convictions," Cook said. "But there was no violence involved. We're asking for an alternative sentence with a structured treatment plan."

Bailey said that there are not enough services available to veterans who come through the criminal justice system.

"I understand you had military awards from when you were in Iraq," she told Russell. "I find it very troubling that our federal government has not done more for people who can't afford to pay."

Bailey oversees the Kanawha Drug Court program and said efforts to get Russell into long-term care for his addictions did not work out. He was taken into custody when he violated the rules of the program.

"I want to keep this on the radar screen to see what there is that we can do, some long-term treatment through the Veterans' Administration, something we can put in place instead of prison.

"Because we're just going to be warehousing him there," she said. "We've done nothing for him. The U.S. government has a duty to him."

Bailey sentenced Russell to two to 20 years on his convictions, to be served consecutively on home confinement. She ordered that he participate in mental counseling and addiction treatment, and set up a follow-up hearing in two weeks.

Jeff Ellis, state treatment court coordinator with the state Supreme Court, agreed that few counties have services for veterans who find themselves in trouble with the law.

Only one county, Wayne County, operates a veterans court program for those with a drug problem who commit crimes. If they successfully complete an 18-month program of treatment, they can have their charges dismissed.

There is also the Northern Panhandle Mental Health Court, which provides an alternative to prison for veterans diagnosed with mental illness. Services are provided through veterans facilities in Wheeling, Clarksburg and Pittsburgh.

Ellis said there is also a veterans justice outreach program that sends representatives to jails to try to match veterans with available services.

Bailey said she wasn't sure Russell was eligible for either of those programs but asked his attorney to explore the options.

"We owe them, frankly," she said.

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