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These courts give wayward veterans a chance

The first veterans court opened last year in Buffalo, N.Y.; its success stories have led to more across the country.

March 10, 2009|Nicholas Riccardi

TULSA, OKLA. — U.S. military veterans from three decades pass through Judge Sarah Smith's courtroom here, reporting on their battles with drug addiction, alcoholism and despair. Those who find jobs and stabilize their lives are rewarded with candy bars and applause. Those who backslide go to jail.

Smith radiates an air of maternal care from the bench. As the veterans come before her, she softly asks: "How are you doing? Do you need anything?" But if a veteran fails random drug tests, she doesn't flinch at invoking his sentence. She keeps a drill sergeant's cap in her office.

Her court is part of a new approach in the criminal justice system: specialized courts for veterans who have broken the law. Judges have been spurred by a wave of troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, battling post-traumatic stress disorder and brain injuries and stumbling into trouble with the law. But advocates of the courts say they also address a problem as old as combat itself.

"Some families give their sons or daughters to service for their country, and they're perfectly good kids. And they come back from war and just disintegrate before our eyes," said Robert Alvarez, a counselor at Ft. Carson in Colorado who is advocating for a veterans court in the surrounding county. "Is it fair to put these kids in prison because they served and got injured?"

The few veterans courts in the nation are modeled on drug courts that allow defendants to avoid prison in exchange for strict monitoring. Most are only a couple of months old, and it is difficult to track their effectiveness, but the results from the first court, which opened in Buffalo, N.Y., in January 2008, are striking.

Of the more than 100 veterans who have passed through, only two had to be returned to the traditional criminal court system because they could not shake narcotics or criminal behavior, said Judge Robert Russell. That is a far lower rate of recidivism than in drug courts.

"It's the right thing to do for those who have made a number of sacrifices for us," Russell said. "If they've been damaged and injured in the course of their service . . . and we can help them become stable, we must."

There are no comprehensive statistics on how often veterans get in trouble with the law, and the majority never become entangled with the legal system. But psychiatrists and law enforcement officials agree that the traumas of combat can lead to addiction and criminality.

Studies have shown that as many as half of the troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan suffer post-traumatic stress and other disorders, and mental health is the second-most treated ailment for returning veterans in the Department of Veterans Affairs system.

Since Russell's court started, veterans courts have opened in Orange and Santa Clara counties in California; Tulsa, Okla.; and Anchorage. Pittsburgh, southern Wisconsin, Phoenix and Colorado Springs, Colo., are opening or considering new courts this year. Some in Congress have proposed a federal program to help spread veterans courts across the country.

Most veterans courts admit only nonviolent felony offenders, though some include violent crimes. Defendants are required to plead guilty to their crimes.

In exchange for a suspended sentence that can include prison time, they must consent to regular court visits, counseling and random drug testing. Should they waver from the straight and narrow, their sentence goes into effect.

Orange County Superior Court Judge Wendy Lindley started her veterans court in November after a young Iraq war veteran on her docket died of a drug overdose. "It was horrible," she said.

As in most of the nation's nascent veterans courts, many of the defendants in Lindley's court served in the Vietnam or Persian Gulf wars. But she has seen a few Iraq war veterans, all of whom had clean histories before joining the military but started getting into trouble after they returned.

One of them is Carlos Lopez, 26, who returned to Orange in 2004 after a four-year stint in the Marines and struggled to readjust to civilian life.

Haunted by memories of friends who died in Iraq, he was prescribed antidepressants, fell in with a bad crowd and started using cocaine. He was convicted of a possession charge in 2005. In 2007, Lopez was arrested for drunk driving, a violation of his probation. That's how he landed in Lindley's courtroom.

"It's been a morale booster for me that there are so many people in the legal system who are there to help me," said Lopez, a construction estimator.

Colorado Springs has been distressed by a number of cases involving soldiers from nearby Ft. Carson who have returned from Iraq only to get into legal trouble. Soldiers from one brigade alone have been charged in eight homicide cases in the last two years.

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