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New Court To Target Troubled Veterans

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A specialized court designed to help military veterans who find themselves at odds with the law will hold its inaugural session here next month.

In what perhaps is the most specialized “specialty court” in the 2nd Judicial District, veterans willing to “get with the program” could avoid jail time and get help for whatever problems are pushing them into the criminal justice system.

Veterans Treatment Court is modeled after the district’s other specialty courts — Drug Court, Homeless Court and Mental Health Court — said Judge Stan Whitaker who, along with Judge Reed Sheppard, will handle the court’s docket.

About 30 local veterans facing an array of criminal charges will appear in the court’s first session, slated Nov. 9 in the 2nd Judicial District Courthouse Downtown.

Veterans Treatment Court is one response to waves of veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan who face unique problems, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, a battered economy that has made civilian jobs scarce, substance abuse and homelessness, proponents say. Overwhelmed by those problems, many veterans found themselves in criminal court.

Veterans who might qualify for other specialty courts — for example, a homeless veteran who is an alcoholic — could get help for both through veterans court.

Some violent offenders might not be eligible, but those guidelines have not been finalized, Whitaker said.

The first veterans court opened in Buffalo, N.Y., in 2008. There are now 78 Veterans Treatment Courts in 28 states, said Chris Deutsch, a spokesman for the National Association of Drug Court Professionals.

Because veterans courts are so new, no definitive cost analysis has been done to determine their fiscal efficacy, he said. However, surveys indicate the average annual cost of helping a Drug Court participant is $6,985, compared with a minimum of $22,650 for a prisoner. Because most veterans qualify for medical care and other benefits through the VA, the cost savings of a veterans court could be even higher than those of a Drug Court, Deutsch said.

Veterans court can be a strong incentive for veterans to tap into resources they might not otherwise choose to use, said Rachel Saiz, director of pretrial services for the 2nd Judicial District Court.

Saiz said her office began considering a veterans court not long after a local man became a victim of “suicide by cop” outside a Northeast Heights convenience store in January 2010.

Kenneth Ellis III, a 25-year-old Army veteran diagnosed with PTSD after serving with an infantry unit in Iraq, was involved in an armed confrontation with police after a traffic stop at Constitution and Eubank NE. Police reports indicate Ellis refused to lay down his weapon and challenged police to shoot him. After a brief standoff, they did.

Saiz said an increase in the number of veterans appearing in Mental Health Court was also a concern.

“We took a snapshot survey probably six to eight months ago of veterans jailed at the Metro Detention Center, and there were 130 veterans in jail that day,” Saiz said.

With thousands of military personnel being pulled out of the Middle East — an estimated 25 percent to 30 percent of whom will likely be dealing with PTSD — those numbers could climb quickly.

Like all specialty courts, the goal is to get defendants into treatment programs that steer them away from jail and future arrests.

“The courts have learned that … the sooner we can get people assessed and into a treatment program early, the better the outcome,” said Greg Ireland, the 2nd Judicial District Court’s executive officer.

Since May, a Veterans Treatment Court planning committee has been meeting monthly to determine what resources are available to veterans — ranging from medical care and housing agencies to mental health providers and mentorship programs — and how to link those services with defendants.

“The VA is working toward identifying a benefits person to work directly with us,” Saiz said. “They also have a Veterans Justice Outreach person they just hired.”

Arrested veterans will learn about Veterans Treatment Court early on, she said.

“If you wind up in jail, someone there or at court will identify you as a veteran and will contact us,” Saiz said. Her office will then contact the VA’s Veterans Justice Outreach program.

“So there will be two things going on: We (pretrial services) will be working to determine your conditions of release with the court, and the VA will determine your treatment needs,” she said. “While that’s happening, we’ll be formulating a release plan so you can be released pending acceptance into the (veterans treatment) program. If you’re needing housing, or help with medications or whatever, the Veterans Justice Outreach people will be able to help you.”

The Public Defenders Office, meanwhile, will determine an appropriate plea and, if the veteran is eligible for the court and willing to accept the plea, move forward with a treatment program.

Veterans will also be matched with mentors who can help them stick with their treatment plan.

Whitaker noted the veterans court is entirely voluntary.

Though many veterans will be eligible for the court, the crimes they commit could disqualify them.

“We’re still discussing it, but the real violent kinds of crime, like those involving great bodily harm or sexual assault, might not be a part of the court initially,” Whitaker said.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal

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