Veterans' courts provide a second chance

May 25, 2009 7:20:41 PM PDT
The U.S. Department of Justice estimates that of the 1.6 million people arrested last year, 10 percent had served in the military. Many of them are veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan. Now the judicial system is trying to save a generation of soldiers.

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After the cheers fade away and the banners come down, many Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans are finding themselves in tough situations.

"I ended up driving through a liquor store drunk and got in trouble for that," Afghanistan veteran Gregory Avila said. "I can't sleep if it's dark or quiet. I have trouble with large crowds of people or sudden movement and noises."

"All I know is before I joined the marines I never got in trouble, never got arrested, never even got a speeding ticket; I come back not even a month, I get a DUI," Iraq veteran Mariano Vazquez said. "I still feel like there's something wrong. Sometimes I think I'm crazy."

A wave of young war veterans is ending up in jail. The common thread among them appears to be Post Traumatic Stress Disorder that leads to substance abuse and other crimes. The Veterans' Administration says almost one-third of returning veterans have PTSD, and now some advocates believe they deserve special treatment.

Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Stephen Manley presides over one of about 15 "veterans' courts" in the U.S. They began popping up last year to handle non-violent offenders.

"I have found that they are very often unaware of what benefits they have, and what their entitlements are and there is no communication between the Veterans Administration and the courts," Manley said.

Most of the veterans are drug offenders who need constant monitoring. Manley has been forging a relationship between the courts and the VA, creating a seamless program that can follow a veteran's progress.

"We have immediate action; this is just like an emergency room, we don't wait," Manley said.

But in Sonoma County, the wait for court rulings and VA mental health services is long.

There are approximately 37,000 veterans in Sonoma County and their only source for service is a small clinic that is only open between 8 a.m. and 4:30 p.m.

Matthew Jensen saw action in Fallujah as a marine. When the 24-year-old came home to Santa Rosa, he says he became suicidal.

Last year, Jensen told police there was an assault rifle in his parents' home where he lived and he needed help. The weapon was a war trophy from Iraq. Jensen was admitted to the VA hospital in Palo Alto.

"I came back four months later and all of a sudden got a phone call saying there was an warrant out for my arrest for having an assault weapon in California," Jensen said.

Sonoma County Superior Court Judge Gary Medvigy, thinks the district attorney's office has been too aggressive in its prosecution of veterans.

"We're still working on getting the DA and public defender on board with this concept," Medvigy said.

Medvigy is trying to establish a veterans' court in Sonoma County. He is an army reserve brigadier general and he thinks young veterans are easier to rehabilitate.

"I think someone who has spent time in the military reacts better, is able to benefit from that structured environment," Medvigy said.

Medvigy has not encountered any opposition, but in Nevada, the American Civil Liberties Union opposed a veterans' court calling it "preferential treatment."

"Our community owes them a debt, so I don't buy that argument whatsoever," Medvigy said.

So far, the effectiveness of veterans' courts is based on limited results. But in Buffalo, New York, where the first one was established only two out of 100 veterans failed the program. Judge Manley thinks it is because the courts are advocating for veterans instead of punishing them.

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