Veterans Courts in Arizona Promote Treatment and Self-improvement
This man is accused of hitting his wife. That one was caught driving drunk. Another has a traffic violation.
They're here because they served in America's military forces, and court officials and prosecutors believe they deserve a second chance.
With more military men and women returning from the battlefield with physical and mental wounds, courts that cater only to veterans focusing on rehabilitation rather than punishment are operating across the country, and Arizona is on the vanguard of the trend.
Arizona has 10 Veterans Courts, stretching from Tucson to Phoenix to Flagstaff, and the capital city is considered by some to have the largest Veterans Court in the country. Three new courts have been added in Tempe, Mesa and Chandler since September, and an 11th Veterans Court is being planned in La Paz County.
Often referred to as "therapeutic courts" or "problem-solving courts," Veterans Courts promote treatment and self-improvement for defendants with relatively minor misdemeanor offenses. Veterans who complete a variety of counseling sessions typically plead guilty to lesser charges and receive lighter sentences.
Eligibility for more lenient sentences is not unique to defendants in Veterans Court; the same is true for a number of first-time offenders who complete court-ordered programs in Superior and Justice courts.
Most Veterans Courts in Arizona are patterned after the Phoenix Veterans Court, which began in 2012 after city prosecutor Patricia George noticed a pattern of "red flags" in misdemeanor cases involving former military personnel. In three years, 795 veterans have participated in the Phoenix program, with more than 250 successfully graduating, even though it can take six to 18 months to complete counseling and treatment programs.
At first, the Phoenix Veterans Court was used by a large number of Vietnam War veterans who ended up homeless and in trouble, according to George, assistant bureau chief in the community prosecution unit. She said many of these veterans never received benefits they earned as part of their service to the country.
"They had tons of services available and didn't know how to access them," she said, adding that the veterans often had substance-abuse problems related to post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury or some form of mental illness.
George views the Veterans Courts as a means of steering veterans to treatment they need to improve their lives before their problems lead to more serious offenses and felony convictions.
She said many veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars who ended up as defendants in Veterans Court had deployed three or four times; one had deployed nine times.
Wes Shipley, director of the east division for Maricopa County Adult Probation, said he hopes the growth of Veterans Courts at the Municipal Court level will eventually reduce the number of veterans who are convicted of felonies and end up in Maricopa County Superior Court's veterans program.
Shipley said a team of six adult-probation officers and their supervisor works with 360 veterans who have been convicted of felonies and are considered high risk. Adult probation has about 1,900 veterans in its caseload.
Veterans sometimes earn a misdemeanor conviction instead of a felony if they complete probation, but the primary purpose is to improve veterans' lives and avoid probation violations that lead to a prison sentence. Veterans who fail to follow treatment programs sometimes get "a wake-up call," a weekend in a county jail.
Shipley said the approach is working well, with nearly 82 percent of those in the Veterans Court during the 2014 fiscal year successfully completing their probation and a little more than 18 percent violating their probation and ending up in prison. Only 1.4 percent are arrested on a new felony charge.
By comparison, about 77 percent of all Superior Court probationers successfully completed their probation during the 2014 fiscal year, and a little more than 21 percent violated their probation. Nearly 6.5 percent of probationers went on to be convicted of a new felony offense, according to an annual report of adult and juvenile probation departments in Maricopa County.
Tiffany Grissom, Veterans Court supervisor, said she often sees young veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan who functioned well in a structured military environment but are unprepared for civilian life. She said her success stories include a Desert Storm veteran who ended up homeless and addicted to methamphetamine. Counseling helped him get clean, and the VA helped him get an apartment.
"Initially, I think it's staying out of prison" that motivates veterans to complete the program, she said. "Once we get buy-in, it's to improve their life."
While most criminal courts exist to enforce the law and punish offenders, defendants who enter Veterans Courts at the municipal level encounter a much less threatening atmosphere: a room full of people from social-service agencies poised to help them.
The purpose of these courts is to connect veterans with services designed to treat the underlying problems that got them into trouble. Many times, these problems stem from their military service with veterans turning to alcohol or drugs to self-medicate symptoms of PTSD or traumatic brain injury.
Many cases that come before these courts include driving under the influence, domestic violence and other types of assault. The court's goal is to assist veterans so they don't reoffend. In the Tempe court, graduates receive a medal and a certificate from Judge Pro Tem Gregg Maxon, a retired general who has made the Veterans Courts his mission.
Most of all, they get a second chance.
"I would say the end result will be positive for them," said MaryAnne Majestic, Tempe Municipal Court's presiding judge. "I feel horrified that someone would have to go through the justice system to get the services they deserve."
Jeffrey O'Hara, one of the first graduates of the Tempe Veterans Court program, was cited for hit-and-run after he admittedly got impatient and clipped the bumper of a car with his motorcycle while turning into a lot.
An Army Iraq veteran, O'Hara took anger-management classes through the Department of Veterans Affairs. He pleaded guilty to a lesser charge, paid a $221 fine and decided to sell his motorcycle.
O'Hara said he felt fortunate compared with other veterans charged with more serious crimes.
"Seeing what everyone else was going through made me want to avoid it in the future," he said.
Christopher Bilandzija, a Coast Guard veteran who appeared as a defendant in the Mesa court on a traffic ticket, was so impressed that he decided to sign up for a veterans-mentoring program.
"The veterans who go before him are extremely fortunate," Bilandzija said, referring to Maxon. "He will help them if they listen. He speaks our language."
David Donaldson, an Army veteran with two tours of duty in Iraq, said he was diagnosed with PTSD and traumatic brain injury and admits to making some of the same mistakes that landed others in the Veterans Court program. Donaldson now works in the courts for Rally Point, a professional network of the U.S. military, steering fellow vets into the services they need.
"This is my dream job, to help other veterans," Donaldson said. "Some vets have gotten to a point where they are locked in an addiction, they are locked on a bad road."
Maxon, a consultant to the Arizona Supreme Court, uses his military knowledge to give veterans who appear before him in Mesa and Tempe a prescription for success, from counseling to vocational services. A former military attorney, he served as a defense attorney in Phoenix Veterans Court before serving as a judge in the East Valley courts to get the programs started.
"These guys are national treasures. They raised their hands to do something that most people were not willing to do," Maxon said. "I think it's up to us to reach down and pick them back up."
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