LAW -- March 3, 2010 at 5:38 PM ET
A New Judicial Approach for Veterans in Trouble With the Law
Nic Gray was a model soldier. He made staff sergeant in an unusually short period of time, and served honorably in Iraq.
When his enlistment was up, he moved to Colorado Springs, Colo., to start a business and get on with the rest of his life. Last October he was on the phone with an old Army buddy, reminiscing about their time in Baghdad. The next thing he remembers is waking up wearing an orange jumpsuit, locked up in jail.
Witnesses said he tried to break into a parked car. A next-door neighbor yelled at him, then retreated into his house when Gray began to approach. Gray then kicked down the locked kitchen door, deeply frightening the couple who lived there. Gray was charged with two felonies.
Normally he would have been tried, sentenced, and dispatched to jail. But because he had previously been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome as a result of his combat experience, the city's judicial system decided Gray should be treated differently. Gray was the first person to be assigned to new kind of court. Last week the District Attorney and the judge made an official announcement that the city's "Veteran's Court" was up and running. It's designed to help military veterans who get in trouble with the law.
The U.S. military has had a major presence in Colorado Springs for nearly 70 years. Fort Carson, Peterson Air Force Base, the Air Force Academy, NORAD, and Air Force Space Command at Schreiver Air Force Base are major contributors both to the local economy and the city's culture. There is also a large community of retired military personnel.
Soldiers and airmen getting in trouble isn't particularly new. But Colorado Springs decided that if their service to their country was a factor in their crimes, they should be eligible for a different judicial approach. Modeled on the drug courts that started popping up around the country, in veteran's court defendants plead guilty in return for a highly supervised probation period that also requires treatment for combat-related conditions like PTSD and Traumatic Brain Injury.
Offenders are also required to write letters of apology and make frequent court appearances to keep the judge updated on their progress.
Producer Mary Jo Brooks and I spoke with Gray and the various players in the veteran's court system about the approach, and about the criticism from some quarters that veterans are unfairly getting a special deal unavailable to other defendants. You can watch our report on Wednesday's NewsHour.