Veterans Court may offer vets a second chance to heal

ST. GEORGE — After some four years of research collected by Vietnam Veteran Bruce Raftery, the final legal procedures to implement a Veterans Court for Washington County are expected to be finalized on Tuesday morning. This alternate court system would offer confirmed veterans a customized program to better address the underlying issues that they may be dealing with post-military experience.

The Veterans Court would serve Washington County and provide voluntary therapeutic treatment to first-time-offender combat and noncombat veterans for a range of charges from misdemeanors to felonies. It would also involve partnering with the St. George Vet Center, judges, prosecutors, therapists, mentors and family members. Veterans have a high co-morbidity addiction rate – that is, additional complications with addictions – and primary-relationship failure rate, St. George Vet Center Readjustment Counselor Bruce Solomon said. Solomon is also a Vietnam veteran. The Veterans Court would offer a road toward redemption for those veterans who are dealing with trauma such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, he said.

If implemented, the Washington County Veterans Court will be Utah’s second Veterans Court. The Veterans Justice Outreach Program in Salt Lake City opened to veterans January 13, 2011, and has seen more than 130 cases. Of these cases, there has been a high success rate as far as people complying with treatment and probation successfully, said Salt Lake City Third District Justice Court Judge John Baxter. Baxter is also a Vietnam veteran.

“We have seen about an 80-85 percent success rate,” Baxter said. “I take any charge, even a $300 traffic ticket.”

“This isn’t to give vets preferred treatment or excuses for them to be ‘bad boys,’” Solomon said. “You have veterans coming home from war and they don’t know where they fit into society anymore.”

The Veterans Court would act as a second chance at a healthy, productive life for many veterans who are suffering from mental-health problems induced from military experience. In many cases, veterans use drugs, alcohol or video games to escape from things they don’t want to think about, Solomon said. Over time, the individual’s spouse, kids, siblings or friends fade off into the distance.

The procedures of other veterans courts operate similar to other problem-solving courts such as drug courts or mental-health courts. Qualified persons must comply with a contracted program but there are not phases, like you would see in drug court, and it would implement weeks of treatment such as therapy, and progression would be tracked.

The process of the proposed Veterans Court would begin at the initial contact with an officer. Upon being approached by a police officer during an incident the individual involved may voluntarily identify himself or herself as a veteran, Raftery said. Otherwise at the time of booking the question of service for the military will arise. If an individual is confirmed as having past military experience, that person will be given  the option of requesting a veterans advocate who would then determine whether or not that person is qualified to go through the Veterans Court.

“Getting to the vets before they get into the system is crucial,” Raftery said, “By the time it gets to Fifth District Court it’s a felony. Veterans don’t like talking to white-coats.”

If the veteran accepts the offer given, he or she must show up to the Vet Center the following day by noon. At 12:05 the judge is called and a warrant for arrest is ordered, Solomon said. The person is then put back into the hands of the regular judicial system. As long as the veteran follows through with the received program, all charges will be expunged at the time of completion. If the veteran doesn’t comply with treatment or probationary requirements, he or she will be entered into the regular court system with original charges.

Having the veterans as a resource would be a great asset, St. George Police Chief Marlon Stratton said, especially because police officers transition from one crisis to the next and don’t have the resources to follow up with veterans after the fact.

The organization of the proposed Veterans Court for Washington County has had both military and civilian influence and incorporates a collaborative effort between law enforcement agencies, behavioral centers, veterans and civilians.

Around 2009, Bruce Raftery began collecting research about veterans courts across the country. The Vets Council has been a great help in getting the ball rolling, Raftry said.

“We’ll take the best of what everyone else has done (such as Las Vegas and Salt Lake City),” Raftery said, “and adapt it to Utah law.”

Washington County Attorney Brock Belnap supports the idea of the Veterans Court in how the program focuses directly on vets. He doesn’t foresee there being a lot of impediments.

“There is an increasing body of evidence that supports that we need to do more for vets coming back from deployment,” Belnap said. “This helps do it humanely while also maintaining accountability.”

In implementing a Veterans Court, there are no expectations to exactly how many people will use it or what kind of adjustments will need to be made, Solomon said.

Tuesday morning involved parties will meet to review documents in the final push toward implementing a Veterans Court in Washington County.

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