Veterans Court relies on tough love approach

February 28, 2011 7:35:55 PM PST
Their transgressions range from shoplifting to violent crimes, but they all have something in common -- the defendants are all veterans. And in Santa Clara County, there is a court for just for them. In fact, the court is a model for others across the country.

Judge Stephen Manley runs the veterans program in Santa Clara County Superior Court. It's all straight talk ? there are tough consequences and there are happy endings. In court, you're likely to hear more encouragement than disapproval.

Judge Manley has a caseload of nearly 2,000 veterans, and he's their biggest cheerleader.

"We did not do well with Vietnam veterans," he said. "We shouldn't repeat that with Iraq and Afghanistan veterans."

This is a collaborative court. It works like a medical triage. Many different agencies are represented in court. Not only the district attorney and the public defender, but Veterans Administration counselors and probation officers. They try to create a supportive environment, not a contentious one.

"Every single case that's heard here, we meet in advance of court outside the presence of all the defendants and we discuss the differences -- where we agree, where we don't agree," said Deputy District Attorney George Chadwick.

Veterans Court began in 2009. Former Marine Eric Washington has a long rap sheet. He was one of the first to graduate. He says he succeeded because of the personal attention he received.

"From the bench, Judge Manley, down to the individuals who were dealing with my mental health care," said Washington.

Enrique Villa did two tours in Iraq. He says he became a drunk and was arrested for a DUI. Villa completed his DUI classes and will now graduate from Veterans Court. Along with it, comes a dismissal of charges and a clear record. A hug by the judge always follows.

Program participants say veterans respond well to this collaborative court approach.

"There's that level of respect with the judge because they're used to that because they've been in the military and they have their commanding officers who they have to answer to," said Deputy Public Defender Socorro Gonzales.

But its success relies on tough love.

"Don't you see you're killing yourself? You're testing positive for methamphetamine and opiates," the judge told homeless vet Richard Evans. "I'm sorry Richard but you're using drugs all the time. And you're not doing one thing I ask you to do."

Judge Manley revoked Evans' probation and sent him back to jail. Evans failed to follow Manley's three principles for success.

"If you believe in yourself, if you don't give up and if you're honest, you're going to make it," explained Judge Manley.

Many heed his advice. The success rate of Veterans Court is 80 percent.


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