by Rebecca Rosen Lum
Trained for hyper-vigilance and even violence, veterans often find it hard to adjust to civilian life. Coming home is doubly difficult for those who suffer brain injury, post-traumatic stress disorder, or sexual trauma. For some, that leads to scrapes with the law.
Combining treatment, support, and criminal justice, San Diego County’s Veterans Court, founded in 2011, aims to help defendants avoid reoffending by offering them pretrial diversion and extra supervision. The program, now replicated in 15 courts across California, is a collaboration of the superior court, defense lawyers and prosecutors, treatment providers, and the California Veterans Legal Task Force.
Steve Binder, a San Diego defense attorney who has represented vets since 1989, when PTSD was poorly understood, says they’re motivated. “They are responsible; that’s why they took bullets,” he says. “As criminal justice practitioners, it’s our job to refocus their behaviors.”
To participate, veterans must show their offense is connected with a condition related to their military service. Most veterans courts accept felony as well as misdemeanor cases but won’t hear serious felonies like arson, homicide, or weapons assault. Recidivists and registered sex offenders are ineligible. In San Diego, the caseload is about evenly divided among domestic violence, driving under the influence, and assault, and participating prosecutors are vets themselves.
“We had one Iraq veteran who went after the pizza delivery guy,” says assistant DA Harrison Kennedy. “Who does that? He showed up in court and spoke directly to the guy, saying what a terrible thing he had done. He said, ‘I wanted to hurt everyone because I was hurting.’ The pizza guy listened and said ‘I accept your apology.’”
Veterans’ support networks and their respect for structure and authority help, says Michael Leon, probation services manager for the San Mateo County specialty courts.
“It’s a very complex process with a lot of players,” says Leon. But “it feels really great to feel you are doing something right.”
Veterans Court stats:
7,700 vets: served in specialized courts in California 2011-2013.
70 percent: finished the programs
70 percent: California’s overall recidivism rate in 2012
SOURCES: Veterans Administration; National Association of Drug Court Professionals; California Forward.
This story appeared in California Lawyer magazine.