Jeff Jardine

Troubled veterans get new chances in treatment court

They go halfway around the world to fight in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, and often are held over by popular demand for additional tours of duty.

They return, in far too many cases, with traumatic brain injuries, post-traumatic stress disorder and other issues that can lead to dangerous behavior or homelessness. One in six United States military veterans develop a drug addiction and end up in the court system, treated like criminals when in many cases they need psychological or substance abuse treatment. There are more than 700,000 U.S. veterans now in the court system – either in prison, jail, being tried or awaiting trials, according to the nonprofit Justice for Vets organization. The group also claims a 98 percent success rate among the 11,000 veterans who have been through the treatment court so far.

Monday, Stanislaus County authorities took a more enlightened approach toward dealing with veterans accused of crimes. The first session of Veterans Treatment Court commenced in Stanislaus County Superior Court. The court is based on similar models elsewhere throughout the nation, and they share a common goal, said Jim Greer of Stanislaus County Veterans Services.

“(Vets) can go through a treatment program if they qualify,” Greer said. “It beats going to jail, basically.”

A dozen veterans treatment courts existed in California in 2011. Now, there are more than two dozen, with other counties preparing go to that route as well. San Joaquin County’s began in 2014, and found many of the veterans were battling DUI convictions that made it tough to keep their drivers’ licenses, which, in turn, make it difficult to get to work.

“It got them into treatment programs and has been a real success,” Greer said.

For some veterans, the court might be their last chance to get help and avoid prison terms. Here, the county jail identifies veterans when they are booked. And deputies try to connect them with service providers. But they are still in the system and at the mercy of the court. They have to volunteer for the program, but must qualify through the types of crimes committed and also through an assessment by Department of Veterans Affairs in Palo Alto or the Modesto Vet Center.

The docket consists only of veterans facing criminal charges, meeting the first Monday of each month in Judge Rick Distaso’s court. Distaso himself is a lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserves who served in Afghanistan. Stanislaus County District Attorney Birgit Fladager also has a military background, as have others in law enforcement. Some saw combat, some didn’t. But they all have a respect for those who served and fought, and understand that these folks who risked their lives defending the Constitution might need some special consideration and help in return.

But Distaso made it very clear to the half-dozen or so veterans in court Monday that he’s no softy.

“If there is a problem, I’ll terminate you from the program,” he warned them.

Two didn’t show up and he issued a bench warrant for one of them. Another has a lengthy list of convictions, probation violations and cases ongoing in the system.

Most of them he referred to the VA for assessment, combined or suspended their other cases and allowed them to see if they qualify.

It’s a new concept here, and a work in progress, said attorney Del Bohner of Modesto’s Perry & Associates law firm.

He represents a client who has four other cases in the system, went AWOL from a prior rehab program and clearly needs to prove to both Distaso and VA outreach specialist Leah Emery that he’s serious about getting help and moving forward in life.

“He has serious PTSD and mental issues that make it difficult for him to follow through,” Bohner said.

The Veterans Treatment Court, he said, can provide that. Each vet will have a program tailored to his or her specific needs.

“He’d rather be in a live-in program,” Bohner said. “But they want him to do outpatient (treatment) to show he has the dedication.”

For that veteran and several others, Monday represented the starting point for a different kind of tour of duty. This one isn’t about defending the Constitution or the flag, though.

Its about saving themselves.