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Special courts take on criminal cases of veterans struggling with trauma

February 24, 2015 at 6:35 PM EDT
Around the country, special courts are set up for former military members who have been charged with crimes after returning to civilian life, and who may be struggling with PTSD. Judges, lawyers, probation officers and others work together to treat or punish each defendant. Special correspondent Spencer Michels reports on how the new approach can offer troubled veterans a path forward.

GWEN IFILL: The number of veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, PTSD, continues to grow. And as some get into trouble with the law, special veterans courts are finding different ways to deal with them.

NewsHour special correspondent Spencer Michels reports.

MAN: Remain seated and come to order. Deportment 4 is now in session.

SPENCER MICHELS: Every Friday afternoon, Judge Jeffrey Ross turns his San Francisco courtroom into a veterans court, one of 220 such courts in the country that hear cases of former military members who have been arrested, often for drug offenses, sometimes for violence.

To signal how different his court is, he often brings a basket of fruit and candy for the defendants.

MAN: Even me being in anger management, what good is that?  Because I snapped.

SPENCER MICHELS: It’s what’s called a collaborative court, where the judge, the district attorney, the public defender, the probation officer and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs work together to treat, or to punish, each defendant.

JUDGE JEFFREY ROSS, San Francisco County Superior Court: It’s good to see you. How are you?

AXEL RODRIGUEZ, Army Veteran: I’m doing excellent, sir.

JUDGE JEFFREY ROSS: That’s what I hear, and I’m glad to hear it.

SPENCER MICHELS: Forty-three-year-old Axel Rodriguez has had a lot of problems common to vets. He served in the Army in the Gulf War in Iraq and Kuwait more than 20 years ago.

AXEL RODRIGUEZ: It was crazy, it was exciting, it was scary. I have nightmares. I don’t like being in closed rooms. I don’t like large groups of people. I just don’t feel in control.

SPENCER MICHELS: You obviously got into some kind of trouble. You’re in court.

AXEL RODRIGUEZ: Yes.

SPENCER MICHELS: What kind of trouble?

AXEL RODRIGUEZ: I got arrested for possession of a stolen vehicle and possession of a controlled substance.

SPENCER MICHELS: Just that one…

AXEL RODRIGUEZ: No, a couple of times, you know, a couple of times.

And at first, I didn’t want to accept that I needed help.

SPENCER MICHELS: Rodriguez spent some time in jail and kept re-offending.

Why are you abusing?  Do you revert back to your time in the Gulf War, and PTSD, or is it something else?

AXEL RODRIGUEZ: No. It starts off with that, but then once you become an addict, everything goes out the window. The only thing that you care about is maintaining your inebriated state.

SPENCER MICHELS: On a few occasions, he says, he became violent.

You’re talking about fights?

AXEL RODRIGUEZ: Yes.

SPENCER MICHELS: You’re talking about girlfriends?

AXEL RODRIGUEZ: Well, not with girlfriends, but with other men. You know, it’s just like the combativeness. It’s a great characteristic to have if you’re in the military. But it’s not one to have when you’re out in the normal world, to be combative.

SPENCER MICHELS: San Francisco district attorney George Gascon, who was in the Army and was police chief before he became DA, argues that vets accused of crime shouldn’t be treated like common criminals.

GEORGE GASCON, San Francisco District Attorney: If you’re talking about people that have severe trauma from being on the battlefield and may be self-medicating themselves, these are things that the criminal justice system cannot fix unless we bring other people on board.

SPENCER MICHELS: When veterans courts first began seven years ago, there were some serious questions: Why set up an alternative justice system just for veterans?  And how could you not prosecute violence, even though the perpetrator had a bad wartime experiences?  But those objections faded as some of the courts have shown good success.

About a quarter of the clients here have graduated, while slightly more have transferred or been reassigned to regular criminal court. The rest are still in the system. But those numbers, officials argue, are better than simply sending disturbed vets to jail time and time again.

JUDGE JEFFREY ROSS: Our goal is to find an outcome which will both prevent recidivism, keep the public safe, keep the victims from being re-victimized, but also deal with the person’s background and the reasons he that he committed the violent conduct that we were just addressing.

SPENCER MICHELS: Using federal grants, as well a local funds, courts rely on the VA to coordinate physical and mental care, plus weekly court dates for vets in trouble. It’s up to the vet to comply.

KYONG YI, Department of Veterans Affairs: We often meet with the veteran when they’re in custody, develop a plan for where they’re going to go when they’re coming out, especially if they’re homeless.

SPENCER MICHELS: Kyong Yi works for the VA.

KYONG YI: We also link them immediately with mental health and medical services. A lot of folks, we will put into transitional housing, or if they have a substance abuse issue, we will put them in residential treatment.

SPENCER MICHELS: As with many vets, housing has been a problem for Rodriguez. He recently moved to a recovery house called Fresh Start, mostly for veterans, after getting evicted from another program. He claims he’s been clean and sober for eight months. And he credits the veterans court for helping him find new housing and putting him on a new path.

He has frequent court-mandated appointments with a psychiatrist.

AXEL RODRIGUEZ: I couldn’t open up to my own family, because they used to mistreat me emotionally.

SPENCER MICHELS: And with a nurse practitioner.

WOMAN: So, what has been going on?

AXEL RODRIGUEZ: Well, I got kicked out of that program for something that I didn’t do, suspicion of being under the influence of alcohol, which, I don’t drink.

SPENCER MICHELS: Every week, the key staff at the VA Center in downtown San Francisco meets to discuss the offenders.

WOMAN: I think there’s some inconsistent taking of his meds.

SPENCER MICHELS: And in Judge Ross’ chambers, another group, including the judge, the prosecutor, the public defender, and the probation officer, collaborate on how they will handle each vet who comes before the court.

MAN: He is doing extremely well. He’s in full compliance.

SPENCER MICHELS: San Francisco’s public defender, Jeff Adachi, says this approach is something completely new in criminal courts, something he welcomes.

JEFF ADACHI, San Francisco Public Defender: I remember when no consideration was given to a person’s background as a veteran, and we had to really fight just to get that evidence in at trial.

SPENCER MICHELS: Veterans courts were at first reluctant to enroll those accused of violent crimes. But, today, that is changing. Adachi says it’s about time.

JEFF ADACHI: We are looking at admitting veterans who are charged with violent crime. And, obviously, it’s going to be over a period of time to see whether or not this is successful. But if you want to prevent violence, one of things you have to do is be willing to treat people who are charged with violent crimes, and not exclude them.

SPENCER MICHELS: For some offenders, court can demand more than they are ready for. This vet didn’t show up when he had agreed to, and despite his excuses, Judge Ross sentenced him to three days in jail, starting immediately.

For Rodriguez, the new approach has led to success for the first time in 20 years.

(APPLAUSE)

AXEL RODRIGUEZ: Veterans court is an event that you go to every week. It’s not a court. It’s an event, that we — we cheer each other on when — you know, when we are in compliance. It’s a great thing.

SPENCER MICHELS: That’s a kind of success in progress that veterans from around the country may also soon experience.

Spencer Michels for the PBS NewsHour in San Francisco.

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