Thursday, Feb. 5, 2009 | 2 a.m.
Military veterans facing criminal prosecution in Clark County who have underlying drug or mental health issues could soon be shepherded to a courtroom of their own.
The vets’ exposure to combat — which can lead to post-traumatic stress, depression and alcohol and drug abuse — qualifies them for special attention, court officials believe.
Veterans courts focus on rehabilitation versus punishment and assign the nonviolent defendants advisers — veterans themselves who can empathize with the defendants and support them in their recovery efforts.
The new approach was chartered early last year in a Buffalo, N.Y., courtroom where the customized court for vets was hailed as a success.
“We try and rehabilitate these people before they get in the criminal justice system,” said Patrick Welsh, director of Buffalo’s Veteran Services Agency. “What this court does is give veterans a chance to get on with their life.”
In just over a year the concept has become an emerging national trend.
Courts in four other metropolitan areas — Anchorage, Alaska; Orange County, Calif.; Rochester, N.Y., and Tulsa, Okla. — have followed Buffalo’s lead, and more than 20 other courts across the country are considering it.
Clark County will follow suit in the fall if District Court receives a $250,000 federal grant to launch the program.
The veterans’ cases would be steered to Judge Jennifer Elliott, who oversees the district’s specialty courts. The vets court would be the newest.
A special veterans court recognizes that veterans have their own culture and is proactive in addressing their needs, particularly mental health issues that go undiagnosed or untreated and lead to criminal behavior, veterans advocates say.
“Unfortunately some may not have come back as well as others and some have adjustment issues, and not necessarily knowing how to cope with these feelings,” said Robert Russell, the Buffalo judge who inaugurated the special court.
Elliott said she’s noticed in her courtroom that it’s “not uncommon for veterans to use alcohol and drugs to help numb the pain experienced as a result of combat.”
A hallmark of the vets court’s success, Russell said, is assigning veterans to mentor the defendants, offering support and advice.
“The benefit of that is veterans will talk to veterans. We understand,” said Welsh, the veterans agency director in Buffalo. “I’m a combat veteran and I can relate to what these people have gone through. When I tell them I’m a Marine combat veteran, it breaks down barriers and they’ll be more forthright.”
Russell said it became quickly evident to him that veterans recover more quickly when their cases are handled in a courtroom dedicated to vets.
“It takes on a life of its own. Just to see a courtroom full of veterans and how they interact with each other and motivate each other is something else,” he said.
Veterans courts are an intensely supervised program, focused on the well-being and rehabilitation efforts of the defendant, according to Steve Grierson, assistant clerk of District Court.
The court requires frequent appearances to report back on progress and employs a system of carrots and sticks to encourage appropriate behavior.
Veterans are accustomed to thriving in a very structured environment, so the system “lends itself well to those who served in the military,” Russell said.
The vets court also creates a different kind of relationship between the judge and the defendant than is typical in criminal court.
“In the military, when you have a good commanding officer, you’d do anything to make sure you don’t let them down. In veterans court they don’t want to let the judge down, let their veteran mentor down. They don’t want to come back and say ‘I failed you,’ ” Welsh said. “It also shows them that someone does give a damn.”
The veterans court also engages the community by integrating the Veterans Affairs, local services such as a veterans housing agency, and family into the process.
Getting the VA’s participation was critical to the success in his court, Russell said, because the federal agency helps coordinate benefits, health care and other services.
The VA has become more proactive in this arena, having recently started an outreach program for incarcerated veterans. Nevada’s got going in April.
“Normally they come to the VA, now we’re going to them,” said Virginia Hines, the incarcerated veterans outreach counselor for the local VA hospital.
A few states require that the court system ask defendants whether they are veterans, but most jurisdictions only find out if vets offer the information.
Currently in Clark County, when the treatment courts are aware that a defendant is a veteran –- officials know of about 30 in the court system now -- they try to get him into group therapy with other vets, Elliott said.
Las Vegas, with its rapidly growing veteran community, easy access to alcohol, drugs and gambling, and a lack of existing community resources, would be well served by a dedicated veterans court, said Ramu Komanduri, chief of staff for the VA Southern Nevada Healthcare System.
“It’s important for every jurisdiction to really critically look at what the challenges are for returning veterans, to look at the things we can do to help vets become stable,” Russell said.
Federal legislation to specifically fund such courts failed last session but has been reintroduced.
Terry Hubert, an adjunct criminal justice professor at the University of Nevada, Reno, who is a Vietnam veteran and a committee chairman with the Vietnam Veterans Association, is working to spread vets courts to the rest of Nevada.
“We should have done this for my generation,” he said. “Thirty years later we recognize the issues.”