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O.C.'s Combat Veterans Court helps ex-warriors fix their lives

Some military veterans have collided with the criminal justice system. There are now more than 90 courts across the U.S. tailored to veterans who are willing to work to get back on track.

March 26, 2012|By Nicole Santa Cruz, Los Angeles Times
  • Shaughn Whittington, 27, works on a vehicle during his auto mechanics class at Golden West College in Huntington Beach. He is a participant in Orange County's Combat Veterans Court program.
Shaughn Whittington, 27, works on a vehicle during his auto mechanics class… (Francine Orr, Los Angeles…)

It took three arrests and the threat of prison to get Shaughn Whittington to Orange County's Combat Veterans Court.

He slumped in a black suit, blue shirt and black tie, bracing for a claustrophobic courtroom, a stern judge.

No need. Here, defendants are called participants. People applaud. Judge Wendy Lindley hands out gift cards.

"It looks more like a support group instead of a courtroom," said Whittington, 27, who was arrested twice on drug charges and once on suspicion of assault. "It's that Marine Corps mentality. You look at it like it's a joke."

Not anymore.

Whittington is among a growing number of military veterans who as warriors survived the battlefield but as civilians collided with the criminal justice system. There are now more than 90 courts across the U.S., including nine in California, tailored to veterans willing to work to repair their lives.

Buffalo, N.Y.'s was the first, launched in January 2008 and modeled on the traditional drug court; Orange County's and Santa Clara County's weren't far behind. Although the process is neither easy nor quick — it takes some veterans years to complete Lindley's program — the three courts have become models of success.

Yet Lindley's stands apart nationally. It is designed exclusively for combat veterans. As a longtime Superior Court judge, she has seen what the residue of combat stress can do.

"We are dealing with people whose mental and physical health is very compromised," she said. "We owe them, each one of them, the highest level of care."

She designed her court to be especially sensitive to war's psychic wounds, which are difficult to understand, let alone heal. Participation is voluntary; only murder cases are ineligible.

Capped at 50 to ensure individualized treatment, what began with five participants is now fully booked. From 2010 to 2011, the number of people referred to the program jumped 41%. As with other veterans courts, if a judge's criteria — including steady employment, staying clean and sober — are met, charges can be dropped or reduced.

Those in Lindey's program share more than battlefield experience. All had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, often with additional war-related complications such as traumatic brain injury. And she hadn't even been looking for these conditions as a requirement.

Nor did she come by this accidentally. Her epiphany came in drug court, when a veteran on her docket died of an overdose. He had been diagnosed with PTSD, which can be marked by such signs as depression, memory loss and substance abuse.

"He was young and I just felt he needed a much higher level of competent services," Lindley said. "On my watch, I didn't want to have any more deaths."

Her weekly sessions provide a one-stop service, bringing together representatives from the district attorney's office and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs' Justice Outreach program, along with probation officers and volunteer mentors. Each veteran is carefully evaluated by a team, including Lindley, before being accepted into the program.

There recently has been a sharp spike in California combat veterans enrolled in healthcare services — which include counseling — through the VA. The number jumped to 47,819 last year from 3,609 in 2003, when the Iraq war began. There are waiting lists.

Lindley's mantra is simple: no alcohol, no drugs, no bad friends.

"It's all a big plan for them to be exposed to the possibility of change," she said. "It's brainwashing in a way. In brainwashing that, there is hope for a better future."

The results so far are striking: 21 graduates, none of whom have had any new convictions or arrests.

Broken into four phases, her program is no cakewalk. To advance, participants must pass drug tests, attend counseling, show up regularly in court and write personal essays. Some drop out, unable to stick with it.

"Sometimes I have to remind them," said Andrea Serafin, Justice Outreach coordinator for Lindley's court. "'Remember when you begged and pleaded to do this?'"

Eileen Moore, a former Vietnam War combat nurse, is one of the mentors. An associate justice with the California Court of Appeal, she said the camaraderie in the program is "palpable."

"During the first phase you can see these — they're mostly young men — you can see them with their head hung and they are filled with shame," Moore said. Then in the fourth phase, "they look proud and they look hopeful. That's not something we see with your run-of-the mill criminal. These young men are different."

Paul Freese, vice president of the Public Counsel Law Center, calls Lindley's court the "gold standard."

"This is by far the model we want people to emulate," he said. "Individuals don't have to go from place to place to place to get the services that they need."

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