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These courts give wayward veterans a chance

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?”

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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.

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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.

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“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.

Alvarez, a therapist with the Army’s Wounded Warrior Program, recalled some of his more serious cases: a warrant officer who choked his dog to death in front of his young children; a soldier who fought violently to pry a shotgun from his wife’s hands so he could kill himself.

“What I keep finding is a pretty normal person, a pretty happy-go-lucky human being who’d go off to war and come back broken,” said Alvarez, a former Marine.

Another ex-Marine teamed up with a seasoned court administrator to open the veterans court in Tulsa, Okla. After hearing of the Buffalo court, the two did some quick research on their local population. They found that Oklahoma has among the most veterans of any state.

Then, Matt Stiner, now an aide to the Tulsa mayor, went to local posts of the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars. Over beers and shots of whiskey, he persuaded members to volunteer as counselors and mentors for the court. He knew that veterans would be helped by “the camaraderie of being a veteran.”

“When I was in the Marine Corps, we talked about stuff,” said Stiner, who left the Marines in 2004 after a tour in Iraq. “Now that I’m out, that’s gone. There’s a lot of isolation.”

Being in a courtroom full of veterans makes a difference to Ira Banks, 60, a Vietnam veteran who was arrested on a charge of marijuana possession. “We’re not in with the rest of the crowd, who are just different than we are,” he said.

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Judge Smith said she had to be extra solicitous of the veterans because they try to hide their problems under a stoic exterior.

“The military personnel, they’re less likely to ask for help, they’re more likely to tell me everything’s fine,” she said.

Smith sent Paul Haggerty to jail a couple of times early on. Now the former paratrooper is clean and a veterans court success story.

Haggerty, 37, said he dislocated a shoulder and inhaled poison gas in training exercises in the U.S. and Kuwait during the Gulf War. The VA gave him painkillers of escalating strength, and he gradually became addicted. He would run through his 30-day supply of OxyContin in five days and go to the streets to buy more.

Last year he became so desperate for cash that he stole lawn mowers from outside Home Depot and Lowe’s. That landed him in Smith’s drug court, and he went with her when she opened the veterans court in December.

The difference between the two courts is striking, Haggerty said.

“In drug court, the atmosphere is down. People don’t want to get sober, they’re there to stay out of prison,” he said. “In veterans court, you have a sense of pride. You don’t feel like you’re going through this alone.”

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nicholas.riccardi@latimes.com


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