Las Vegas Sun

April 30, 2017

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Special courts offer veterans kinder approach to criminal justice

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Steve Marcus

Justice of the Peace Judge Melanie Tobiasson is shown in court at the Regional Justice Center. She began holding a veterans court in Las Vegas Justice Court once a month about a year ago.

At any given time, dozens of cases involving military veterans are being processed by various court systems around the valley.

Many of the offenses are relatively minor in nature — ranging from petty theft to drug possession to trespassing — and often stem from physical and mental trauma suffered by the veterans while serving that can lead to substance abuse, mental health issues or even homelessness.

To help deal with these issues, several court systems in Clark County have set up veterans courts and dockets to get the servicemen and women connected to resources offered by various veterans support agencies.

“What we take are the low-level drug charges, battery or domestic violence … the trespasses, the petty larcenies, the jaywalkings and we bring them all into my court,” said Justice of the Peace Melanie Tobiasson, who began holding a veterans court in Las Vegas Justice Court once a month about a year ago. “Sometimes it’s as simple as getting them into U.S. Vets so they have a place to stay for a while. Other times, we’ve really been able to provide an enormous amount of service to people who are severely addicted to drugs or suffering from severe (post-traumatic stress disorder).”

The criminal justice system serves as a safety net that can help identify veterans in need of support who have otherwise fallen through the cracks, Tobiasson said. As part of the effort, the Clark County Detention Center has started identifying veterans when they are booked into the jail, and defense attorneys and prosecutors are made aware of the services available to veterans so they can direct their clients to them.

Peter Quigley, a justice outreach specialist for the Veterans Affairs Department, said in an email that many veterans have their first contact with his organization through the court system.

Quigley attends court hearings in North Las Vegas, Henderson and Las Vegas, identifying veterans and working with judges and lawyers to figure out alternative sentencings that allow veterans to get counseling, perform community service or get into support groups.

“When we began the Justice Outreach Program, many of the courts were unaware of the services provided by the VA,” Quigley said. Now, he estimates about 400 veterans have been helped through the program, with 40 currently receiving treatment.

At the District Court level, a special drug court docket has been set up specifically for veterans, Judge Kathleen Delaney said.

“If we can treat the addiction, treat the PTSD, treat the problems that may have led to these behaviors, hopefully we can keep them from re-entering the system,” Delaney said. “It’s especially important for our veterans who have served our country, been put in harm’s way and are now dealing with the consequences of that.”

The veterans courts don’t receive specific funding, and often result from judges carving time out of their schedule to handle the cases.

With a large influx of soldiers returning home from Iraq soon due to the recently announced withdrawal, Justice of the Peace Tobiasson said she expects the veterans court services to be stressed.

“The need for these services is going to grow exponentially. At some point we’re going to run out of resources,” she said.

But for now, Tobiasson and Delaney said the system is working well and that they are happy to play a part in helping veterans.

“It’s a really good feeling when you see them come back in and they’re dressed nice and they’re not all jumpy and nervous,” Tobiasson said. “It’s pretty overwhelming.”

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