Trained for hypervigilance and violence when called for, military veterans often find it hard to adjust to civilian life. Coming home is doubly difficult for those who suffer brain injury, post-traumatic stress disorder, or sexual trauma. For some, that leads to scrapes with the law.
Combining treatment, support, and criminal justice, San Diego County's Veterans Court, founded in 2011, aims to help defendants avoid reoffending by offering them treatment and extra supervision. (See box.) The program, replicated in 15 courts across California, is a collaboration of the superior court, defense lawyers and prosecutors, treatment providers, and the California Veterans Legal Task Force. (The nation's first veterans court opened in Buffalo, New York, in 2008; there are now roughly 130 nationwide. )
Steve Binder, a San Diego deputy public defender, says vets are motivated. "They are responsible; that's why they took bullets," he says. Veterans' support networks and respect for structure and authority also help, says Michael Leon, probation services manager for San Mateo County's veterans court.
To participate, veterans must show that their offense is connected with a mental illness related to their military service. In California, registered sex offenders are ineligible, and some veterans courts exclude crimes involving a deadly weapon or violence. In San Diego, where all the participating prosecutors are vets themselves, the caseload is about evenly divided among domestic violence, driving under the influence, and assault.
"We had one Iraq veteran who went after the pizza delivery guy," says deputy district attorney Harrison Kennedy. "Who does that? He showed up in court and spoke directly to the guy, saying what a terrible thing he had done. He said, 'I wanted to hurt everyone because I was hurting.' The pizza guy listened and said, 'I accept your apology.' "
By the Numbers
vets participated in specialized courts in California in 2011-13.
percent finished the programs.
percent were rearrested within two years.
By comparison, California's overall recidivism rate in 2012 was 70 percent.
Sources: Veterans Administration; National Association of Drug Court Professionals; California Forward.