EJF Newsletter — Veterans Court: Restorative Rather Than Punitive Justice


October 10, 2010 —The following article describes a functional veterans court established from the bottom up by a local judge and community groups in Spokane, Washington.Following the article is a review of why many veteran courts are dysfunctional using the Spokane article as an example of what works and Colorado Springs to illustrate what doesn't.

Functional veteran courts practicing restorative justice hold the promise of reducing veteran recidivism by at least half and initial experience supports that promise. That reduction will more than compensate for any additional special court costs. Treatment costs are almost entirely covered by existing Veteran Administration or military programs and it is certain that many veterans can be returned to productive lives as good citizens by timely and appropriate care.

In Colorado Springs 250 to 270 veterans a month are presently arrested, of which 75-85 are on active duty. Under present catch, convict, and release policies some 70-80% of these veterans will reoffend, often progressing to more violent crimes as documented in the Rolling Stone article on The Fort Carson Murder Spree. Unfortunately, the veteran court pilot program established here currently presumes a veteran is guilty, demands a plea of guilty and sentencing before treatment is begun, in the main the court accepts only non-violent criminal felony cases, and operates from the top down. That has grave consequences for the 75-85 active-duty military personnel arrested each month as they are then usually chaptered out of the military following their conviction. A safe assumption, based on a decade of experience with local courts, is that more than half of the arrested veterans would be acquitted in a jury trial. However, many troops will plead guilty and accept a plea bargain without being aware of the consequences or whether they are, in fact, guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

On that basis, preliminary data suggest the five military bases surrounding Colorado Springs are losing half of those arrested, or ~40 active-duty personnel a month, primarily due to dysfunctional courts. The primary age range of 23 to 35 in the arrest records suggests these people are mainly sergeants through master sergeants, although we have also encountered a number of officers from O-1 (2 nd lieutenant) to O-6 (colonel or Navy captain), as well as a few warrant officers. A functional veteran court might reasonably be expected to provide needed treatment and return half of these troopers (~20/month) to active duty without a career-destroying conviction.


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Spokane, Washington, veterans court weighs stress of war service


© 2010 by Kevin Graman The Spokesman-Review

Reproduced under the Fair Use exception of 17 USC § 107 for noncommercial, nonprofit, and educational use.

Innovation, second in state, pursues treatment options for criminal behavior by disabled veterans

September 19, 2010 — After surviving 15 months in one of the most dangerous places on Earth, Iraq war veteran Carl Jacobson thought he could cope with just about anything civilian life had to throw at him.

Jacobson realized he was wrong the day he learned that his beloved former platoon leader had been gravely wounded by an enemy sniper.

"It broke me down," Jacobson said. "No matter what comes your way, it's crucial to any soldier to avoid losing control. You can't lash out."

Jacobson was arrested in July 2010 on a domestic violence charge after breaking the door of the north Spokane apartment he shares with his girlfriend and her two young children.

The former Army sergeant could have been convicted of third-degree malicious mischief last week, but instead he received a "stipulated order of continuance" [deferred prosecution] from Spokane County District Judge Vance Peterson on the first day of Veterans Court.

If Jacobson completes a two-year counseling program under the terms of his continuance, the charge will be dismissed.

He was one of 13 veterans and active-duty soldiers answering misdemeanor or gross misdemeanor charges in Peterson's courtroom on Thursday.

Four received stipulated orders of continuance, including one National Guard soldier whose felony charge was reduced to a misdemeanor. Eight had their cases delayed. One, who was in violation of the terms of probation, had his probation reinstated.

Two of the veterans appearing in court on Thursday were women, one accused of driving under the influence and another accused of fourth-degree assault.

There are other therapeutic courts — most notably Spokane County Superior Court's Adult Therapeutic Drug Court and Spokane County District Court's Mental Health Court — designed to divert defendants from the traditional criminal justice system into rehabilitative services. But Veterans Court is the first in Spokane County, and only the second in the state, designed specifically for military veterans or active-duty soldiers. Thurston County began a veterans court last July.

Veterans courts are part of a growing movement that began in Buffalo, New York, to divert offenders into treatment for psychological problems resulting from military service.

The courts are prompted by a realization that many soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan — conflicts in which there are no traditional fronts and a constant threat of violence — may suffer from post traumatic stress, traumatic brain injury, substance abuse or other behavioral health conditions.

The Associated Press reported in May that there are 72,000 incarcerated veterans in the United States and that veterans account for about 10 percent of the population with criminal records.

The effort to establish Spokane County's Veterans Court was led by Judge Peterson, a retired Army Reserve officer who coordinated with the Spokane Veterans Affairs Medical Center, the prosecutor's and public defender's offices, the probation department and other legal, military and social service agencies.

The formula has proved successful for Spokane County's Drug Court, which deals with both mental health and substance abuse issues, said presiding Superior Court Judge Maryann Moreno.

Since 1996, Drug Court has graduated 475 defendants who have a recidivism rate of 22 percent — compared with national data that show felons with addictions left untreated reoffend at a rate of 70 percent to 80 percent.

But unlike Drug Court, which has an annual budget of about $1 million, 85 percent of which goes to treatment and recovery support services, Veterans Court so far has no specific funding allocated to it.

That's largely because veteran offenders nearly always qualify for VA health services.

"The VA will provide the vast majority of the counseling," said Paul Nicolai, substance abuse program coordinator at the Spokane Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

Deputy prosecutors, public defenders and probation officers have volunteered to add the veteran dockets to their workloads, Peterson said.

In addition to counseling, offenders will be required to attend at least four monthly forums in which veterans will discuss relevant issues. For each forum attended, the offender will have one month knocked off the time he or she has been ordered to spend in the program.

Peterson's plan goes even further, assigning a veteran mentor to guide the offender through the court-ordered program.

"A lot of these guys miss comradeship and get in trouble because of it," Judge Peterson said.

The judge envisions veteran offenders being put in touch with other services as well, including food and housing resources, employment counseling and legal advice for those who also face civil court issues such as child support.

"We have the ability to take people who might be felons and preempt them," Peterson said.

But while he and others who have worked to make Veterans Court a reality are willing to give veteran offenders the benefit of the doubt, Peterson said they are not prepared to give anyone a free ride because they served in the military.

"We are not going to reinforce a failure," Peterson said. "If they don't comply, we will cut them loose. We don't want jerks in the program."

Critics of veterans courts argue that the American justice system should single no one out for special treatment.

However, Breean Beggs, former chief catalyst for the Center for Justice in Spokane, favors therapeutic courts, which recognize that approaches to changing behavior need to be individualized to fit the offender.

"Simply locking people up without considering what's the most effective way to keep them from offending in the future is a mistake," Beggs said. "Simply building new and larger jails has pretty much bankrupted us."

"The psychological wounds of veterans are unique," Beggs said, "and the intervention is probably unique as well."

Veterans Court was conceived with soldiers like Jacobson in mind


The 26-year-old former sergeant was raised in Springdale, Washington, and attended Rogers High School in Spokane.

He served in Taji, Iraq, with the 1 st Cavalry Division, which was assigned to secure the main supply route north of Baghdad, including a half-mile of highway known as "the gantlet" for the high number of bombings that occurred there.

Jacobson said his unit was hit repeatedly by roadside bombs, known as improvised explosive devices, and he said he was blown out of his vehicle twice.

He lost more than one friend in Iraq, including his best friend from basic training, Nicholas Greer, from Monroe, Michigan, who was killed by a sniper in 2005. Jacobson bears a tattooed dedication to Greer on his right wrist.

Jacobson, a marksman, was assigned to provide security for his lieutenant, Matthew Burch, in 2007. When he found out Lt. Burch had been shot in the abdomen this summer, Jacobson lost control of his emotions.

"He said, 'I should have been there, I could have saved him,'?" recounted Teresa Queen, Jacobson's girlfriend.

Jacobson's lawyer, Tim Note, a candidate for District Court judge, said he has seen a disproportionately high number of veteran defendants during the past five or six years, facing charges related to alcohol, domestic violence, or assault.

"A lot of these guys are coming back with issues and perceptions that if they ask for help they will be viewed as weak," Note said. "Some have seen a lot of horrific things. They suppress, suppress and suppress, and then they have a blowup."

He hopes Veterans Court will get them the help they need.


Veteran court comparisons


As described in the article above the veterans court in Spokane, Washington, provides restorative justice for veterans whenever possible. To work effectively a veterans court must employ certain characteristic methodology. To illustrate these methods a comparison is made between a functional, e.g., Spokane, Washington, and a dysfunctional veterans court, e.g., the pilot program in Colorado Springs, Colorado.



Functional: Works from the bottom up by including local citizens, groups, public officials, Veterans Administration, military bases, criminal defense attorneys, prosecutors, and judges with military backgrounds who volunteer.

Regular public meetings of all interested parties are held to discuss openly and honestly what is working and not working. Feedback and suggestions are encouraged.

Dysfunctional: Uses top-down dictates to local citizens, groups, and defense attorneys. Ignores local criticism or suggestions. Responds to criticism with ad hominem attacks and bitter complaints and is unresponsive to local issues and problems.

Meetings are few and far apart, and generally not publicly announced. Agenda is limited to what program managers want to discuss. Feedback is limited and discouraged. Those who disagree are retaliated against or terminated.



Functional: Uses available local resources and realizes cost savings from reduced recidivism to justify establishment and maintenance of veterans court.

Costs for treatment are largely borne by the Veterans Administration or military bases for active-duty troops under existing programs. Thus, local jurisdictions are not burdened by those expenses.

Veteran needs for food, housing, clothing, employment, family problems, etc., are met by participating local charities and existing government agencies, e.g., employment offices.

Dysfunctional: Requires large federal grants to get started and continue operations. Spends a great deal of effort seeking additional funding to maintain large bureaucratic overhead.

For example, the Colorado Dept. of Human Services has had a $2 million grant since October 2008 from the federal Dept. of Health and Human Services SAMSHA program to establish veteran courts. As of October 2010 only one pilot program is in pilot stage for a veteran court in one county. That is apparently true in the other 11 states where SAMSHA has pilot programs as well.

Top-down management tends to prevent or inhibit cooperation with local charities and other government agencies. So veteran's needs for food, housing, clothing, jobs, etc., generally go unmet.

Personnel and facilities


Functional: The justice system is obligated to resolve the issues associated with veterans who are arrested regardless. Thus, no new facilities or personnel are required. Treatment is provided by the Veterans Administration or local military bases under existing programs in any case and only informal coordination is required between the various groups.

In order to get the new court up and running involved personnel in the justice system, concerned citizens, local charities, local government agencies, and veterans volunteer their time and energy to plan and implement the program.

Once up and operating the veteran court reduces recidivism so that the justice system has fewer veterans and personnel have more time to deal with them on a personal basis. That further reduces both recidivism and costs to the justice system.

Dysfunctional: Requires hiring people to do the coordination, manage the program, recruit and train the veteran volunteers, develop training programs, schedule events, develop agendas, and promote the program in order to obtain additional funding.

The increase in bureaucracy and top-down management tends to alienate citizen groups and local charities who cooperate and innovate less. That results in requirements for more bureaucrats to do the jobs citizens and charities should be doing. And the growing bureaucracy requires expanded, expensive facilities as well as additional funding.

An inflexible bureaucracy leaves little time to deal with disabled veterans in court and few even bother with the veteran court. Recidivism remains unchanged or, possibly, increases.

Types of crime dealt with in veteran court


Functional: Has no limit on types of crimes considered for first offenders and many repeat offenders where addiction or combat wounds are a factor in the veteran's offenses.

Whenever possible veterans are intercepted during their first brush with the criminal justice system and evaluated and treated as rapidly as possible after their arrest.

Dysfunctional: Only admits veterans accused of non-violent crimes, misdemeanors or felonies, who are first offenders.

Requires veterans to accept a plea agreement (plead guilty) to the accusations before being admitted to the veteran court. Postpones treatment until after the plea agreement and sentencing, months or more than a year after they are arrested.

Treatment versus punishment


Functional: Presumes innocence! Veterans who enter the justice system are quickly and publicly evaluated and entered into treatment while prosecution is deferred as appropriate.

Veteran court wields both a carrot by deferring prosecution while the veteran is treated and dismissing charges if successful, and a stick by going through with criminal prosecution if veteran fails or is unsuccessful in treatment. Thus, veteran has considerable incentive to complete required treatment and participate in the veteran court program.

The veteran's record doesn't show a conviction if they cooperate and successfully complete treatment. Their lives and careers are left intact and they have a very good chance of going on to lead productive, crime-free lives, thereby reducing recidivism and costs for the justice system.

Dysfunctional: Presumes guilt! Veterans are leisurely evaluated by a secret cabal and forced to plead guilty to a heinous crime they may or may not have committed before being accepted into the veteran court.

The court holds little power over the veteran after the guilty plea except to put them in prison. The veteran has little incentive to complete treatment.

Veteran's record shows they have pled guilty and been convicted of a heinous crime. Their lives and careers are destroyed and it is very likely they will go on to commit more crimes, often more violent ones.

Veterans helping veterans


Functional: Uses time-honored military method of "buddy system" to link up volunteer veterans with disabled veterans in the court. Informal process of "makee-learnee" used to find out what works best overall and in individual cases.

Emphasis is on getting veterans helping veterans without undue and burdensome bureaucracy. Process is rapidly implemented and mistakes or problems are quickly corrected.

Dysfunctional: Requires long debates on what to name the program, extensive training and background checks of volunteer veterans before they can be linked up with a disabled veteran, and training of volunteers cannot begin until training program is developed and approved by bureaucracy.

Multi-year delays in implementation result and no mechanisms for correcting mistakes or bad practices are built in. In fact, criticism is retaliated against.


Restorative justice works better


There can be little doubt that functional veteran courts work to help veterans with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), traumatic brain injuries (TBI), crippling wounds and disabilities, substance abuse, and other issues related to their military service when they enter a civilian justice system. For example, virtually any manifestation of PTSD looks like domestic violence (DV) in the civilian world and is likely to result in an arrest. But, in essence, a DV conviction leaves a trooper a dead man walking. Thus, the deferred prosecution and treatment inherent in a functional veteran court can save the veteran, his family, marriage, and career in many cases where their PTSD and other impairments can be recognized and successfully treated. Society benefits both by reducing costs for courts and incarceration, and returning veterans to productive lives.

Conversely, dysfunctional civilian courts, or veteran courts that operate on a drug-court model that requires a guilty plea and only accepts non-violent first offenders doesn't begin to address the problems that typically lead veterans into trouble with the civilian justice system. Current catch, convict, and release practices often leave a veteran homeless and commonly result in their committing even more crimes, or suicide. Hardly the outcome society desires for men and women who have given so much for their country!

Costs of dysfunctional courts


As noted in the forward, the five bases surrounding Colorado Springs are losing ~40 active-duty military a month largely due to dysfunctional civilian courts. If just half of those troops could be returned to duty by a functional veteran court, savings in training and associated costs, assuming such costs average $5 million for each trooper (combat veteran noncoms are not cheap or easy to replace), would be $100 million per month to the military budget.

That is for only one functional veteran court!

Colorado Springs almost certainly has one of the highest arrest rates of active-duty military in the nation. But a number of other jurisdictions must be losing at least 10 troopers a month to dysfunctional civilian courts who might be suitable for return to duty with a functional veteran court. Assume two Marine Corps bases and five other Army bases are losing 10 Marines or troopers a month that could be helped by a functional veteran court. That suggests at least 90 military personnel a month, or a thousand troops a year might be retained on active duty by functional veteran courts. The potential savings are a billion dollars in the defense budget.

El Paso County (Colorado Springs), and other local jurisdictions, also stand to save a considerable amount by instituting a functional veteran court. Dividing total yearly costs by the number of arrests and bookings into the El Paso County (Colorado Springs) jail suggests each booking costs the county at least $130. Preliminary data show there are between 3,000 and 3,200 veterans a year booked into the El Paso County jail. With current practices at least one-third of these veterans will be rearrested within a year, or at least 1,000. If a functional veteran court cuts recidivism in half then only about 500 veterans would be rearrested, saving the county at least $65,000 in jail costs alone. Cost reductions for police and courts are probably of the same magnitude suggesting the county should save upwards of $200,000 per year with a functional veteran court. And I suspect these estimated cost savings are low because I've omitted many factors, e.g., lost time at work, lost jobs, etc.

Charles E. Corry, Ph.D.


About the author


Dr. Corry holds a Ph.D. in geophysics from Texas A&M and is a Senior Fellow of the Geological Society of America. He is a widely-published and internationally-known earth scientist whose biography has appeared in Who's Who in the World, Who's Who in America, Who's Who in Science and Engineering, among others, for over a decade.

After service with 1 st Marines he became involved with the early space program in 1960, doing preflight testing and failure analysis on Atlas and Centaur missiles, including all the Project Mercury birds. In 1965 he switched to oceanography and did research at both Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution on Cape Cod. He has also taught geophysics at university and worked as a research manager for a Fortune 500 company.

Dr. Corry has climbed high mountains, been shipwrecked and marooned on an unexplored desert island, ridden horseback through Utah, Arizona, and Colorado, among other adventures during his career.

He also has far more experience with the Veterans Administration than he ever wanted while helping his son, a disabled Marine veteran.



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