Special court for veterans aims to keep them out of jail, out of trouble

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December 29, 2017 - 6:45am

Eight months ago, Judge Mark Ashford began presiding over Nebraska’s first court program assisting military veterans charged with felonies. It is exceeding his expectations.

Douglas County set up the program in 2016. Eight veterans facing felony charges related to drug and alcohol addiction were participating as of June. 2017. More are expected.

The legislation established a three-year pilot project. After assessing its success and the demand for the program the State Supreme Court will recommend to lawmakers whether to continue or expand the approach in other counties. Demand for services prompted the state to open a second veterans court in Lancaster County in April 2017.

The age range of participants are reflected in where they carried out their military service. Four decades of armed conflict are represented, from the Vietnam War to actions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The program is similar to other problem-solving courts established around the state. The mission statement for those courts state the goal is “to return law-abiding and productive citizens to the community.”

Participants get to remain out of jail as long as they follow the strict guidelines for remaining drug and alcohol free and establish goals for recovery, personal development, and career choices. 

Veterans and Mentors

One of the most important element of Veterans Court is pairing participants with mentors with current or past military service in the hopes they have a special understanding of their issues. Two participants shared their thoughts on the importance of the mentors.

Gerry Crawford

Crawford struggled with heroin addiction for years after he served the U.S. Navy in Vietnam. While still in jail in the first weeks of veterans court, he expected to earn parole soon and continue the program.

"The camaraderie that we have is the same that we had in the service. It comes back so easily, being in that environment. We know that we can look to another service member or fellow veteran and get the help. Someone who's been through the same things as we have understands what you're going through, (and) can relate with what you're going through. So they're more apt to give you help and to provide the right language, and say the right things that the person needs to hear and wants to hear."

Vicente Vuenrostro

Currently in rehab, Vuenrostro was arrested for running a Craigslist scam to pay for his cocaine and alcohol addictions. The Army gave him a medical discharge for mental health issues after a brief deployment.

“The mentors keep me realistic in all my goals. They've helped me set up monthly goals, weekly goals, and then they told me to start setting up yearly goals up until when I retire. So, I'm still working on my goals up to when I want to retire. I've never done anything like this before, too, so it's taken a lot of thinking power."

Judge Ashford says the first step is “to take responsibility” for the crimes committed. Most offenses are linked to a substance abuse problem including theft, driving while intoxicated, or other non-violent crimes.

“They come in and they plead guilty, with no reduction,” Ashford said. “There's no plea bargains.”

The objective is to connect veterans with social services and treatment opportunities that can address the demons that lead them to the crimes that landed them in jail.

It’s a model with a number of variations in more than 300 veterans courts in 40 states.

Chris Deutsch, spokesperson for the National Drug Court Institute told NET News, the legal system is embracing ”an opportunity to try something different.” Deutsch said that is to hold accountable the veterans who get into trouble “but put them in a highly structured environment where they are getting treatment and they are getting resources to reclaim their lives.”

The program lasts as long as it takes for the veterans to meet their own goals toward recovery. Representatives of the county prosecutor, social service and Veterans Administration case workers, the public defender and others create a plan with the veteran. Drug or alcohol abuse treatment is common.

“Incarcerating someone with a substance abuse disorder or a mental health disorder generally does not work,” Deutsch said. “They will be back in the system again. It’s only a matter of when.”

The veteran’s mental health issues, especially depression, get attention through counseling. The familiar problem looming over so many leaving military service is post-traumatic stress disorder.

A Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) study found “a higher percentage of veterans (55 percent) than nonveterans (43 percent) in jail reported that a mental health professional told them they had a mental health disorder at some point in their lives.”

Compared to civilians, jailed veterans reported it was more than twice as likely they had been told they had post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

The Nebraska courts have adopted what early research has shown to be an effective supplement to traditional drug courts. Research has shown mentors assigned to participants, and providing guidance and comfort during the rigorous demands of the program increase the chances of success.

In Nebraska the veterans are paired with others with military backgrounds, recognizing that sometimes only other soldiers and sailors can understand what’s going on inside.

“They’re not there as therapists. They are there strictly as battle buddies,” Deutsch explained.  He says as mentors, they have the insights of “somebody who has shared experience and can identify with some of the difficult things the veterans in the program may be grappling with.”

An Interview with Douglas County District Judge Mark Ashford

Judge Mark Ashford: Once I caught wind of that, I told them I'd do whatever I can. It's something I truly believe in. It's an opportunity to take care of society. But also give people who participate an opportunity to get themselves out of some problems that they have. It is totally different. There's nothing quite like it.

Bill Kelly, NET News:  Why would veterans need their own venue to work through these problems?

Ashford: When people ask me this question, I say they deserve it. We have a volunteer army now. These are the folks that are willing to sign their name on the dotted line. To put themselves in harm’s way to protect all of us. Do they deserve this special avenue? They do. They've earned it, and the resources are there to assist them.

Kelly:  What is it that this court can offer that is beyond the scope of the regular criminal justice system?

Ashford: First of all, they have to take responsibility. They come in (when they have been selected for the program) and they plead guilty with no reduction. There's no plea bargains. They plead guilty to what they're charged with. Whether it be as serious as a robbery, maybe a felony drunk driving and a lot of things in between. By pleading guilty they are subject to the penalties. They don't go away. It merely is in a backdrop to encourage them to be successful. If you want to call it diversionary or a diversion type of process, it is.

Kelly:  It focuses resources on the participants who need them?

Ashford: Part of the program is to unite them with the resources that they can utilize. But, some of it isn't available to all of them. Because of their discharge papers, they may not have (access to) the resources that a lot of veterans do have. We have one or two of those in our program now. That do not have a high enough discharge to get all the VA programs.

Each one has an individualized program. It is very detailed. It depends what track they're on. If they've got a mental health component, or if they have addiction issues or treatment issues, it's very intense. These people are reporting in (for drug testing and treatment meetings) more than any other problem-solving court.

You've got to follow through. They're very, very busy. They only see me once every other week, unless they're in trouble. Otherwise, I guarantee you, they've got something every day. If they don't make it, or if they miss a meeting, I can sanction them; put them in jail for five or six days to get their attention. It's very intense.

Kelly:  What does success mean, on the back end, with this group compared to a regular drug court group?

Ashford: I've heard that the recidivism rate in drug court is pretty low. Nationally speaking, I think the recidivism rate for veterans, in these courts, is less than seven or eight percent. I can't quantify that for Nebraska because we haven't had a graduate yet. But, I'm anticipating it'll be somewhere in that neighborhood, over ninety percent.

Kelly:  While in court, speaking from the bench, you spoke a number of times about the importance of the mentors assigned to each participant in the program.

Ashford: They're the ones that deserve the pat on the back. Not the judiciary, not the legislature, not the governor. It's the mentors, in this court, that are amazing.

Kelly:  You could tell the mentors weren't necessarily the guys they’d have been friends with in the outside world.

Ashford: Oh, no way (laughs). It's service. I think. It's the commonality of service. It gives them a point to begin. It's remarkable. You may have seen some of it today. It's the glue. It's the commonality of service, I think.

Kelly:  Have you learned anything about...

Ashford: I've learned a lot. There's a high suicide rate. Their military experience has caused them problems that most of us don't have. Seeing the effects of war changes them dramatically.

Now that we have a volunteer (military). You get deployed and now it's to the point before they even go home, they get re-deployed. So they're kind of on a fast revolving track which is different than any other conflict era that we've been in. They don't necessarily get out when they think they're getting out. What that's done is the suicide rate is huge. Even “in-country.” It literally destroys their morale. They can't count on anything. We have new problems in our volunteer military that we didn't have before. I've learned that.

Kelly:  How does the court become aware that one of the clients might be considering taking their own life?

Ashford: That's hard because, I think just about everyone we have here has some form of PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder). Or they have a traumatic brain injury. They go through a whole block of evaluations, and counseling, then the diagnosis can be made. I would say that just about everybody I have here suffers from PTSD, to some degree.

Kelly:  When one of the veterans court participants has thoughts of suicide, is that something addressed in open court?

Ashford: If you listened carefully, we kind of addressed it with (one of the veterans in court today). Which is a problem and we're very concerned. I can see it. If I can see it, the other people who are so intricately involved can see it too. We've got to get this one person to go to the proper treatment that they need, otherwise, I'm very concerned. You can see it there; that it's close.

Kelly:  Is that an important thing for all of the other participants to hear?

Ashford: I think it just enlightens them.

Kelly:  In 2010 the war in Afghanistan became the longest war in American history. What does that tell you about the need for the services and process underway in veterans courts?

Ashford: Here's what it tells me: We as a society recognize the service of veterans. We might give up a seat on an airplane or we might buy a lunch or thank people for their service. But the in-depth problems? We're just scratching the surface.

When service men were coming back and being spit on because the war was unjust in Vietnam. Now, everybody recognized the commitment of veterans, but I don't think they understand how to deal with it. What they face. We're still in the stone-age when it comes to recognizing, not only a veteran's service, but how they can be successful going forward. I think we're getting better, but we're still kind of ignorant as society.



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