Homeless, unemployed and struggling with the legal aftermath of a DUI arrest, Chante Fields never guessed her military veteran status would be the key to turning her life around last year.
For more than two years, she agonized over fees for the misdemeanor offense until court staff —realizing she served in the Air Force for a decade — referred her case to Las Vegas Municipal Court Judge Martin Hastings, who specializes in cases dealing with military vets.
“Here they were more lenient, laid back and helpful,” said Fields, flanked by her two young sons as she prepared for a status check last week in front of Hastings. “Me and my kids were living at a shelter, and it's been hard finding a job. They helped get me an apartment.”
The Las Vegas judge has sought referrals in cases like Fields' since 2007, hoping to steer veterans toward rehabilitation services they need during the trial process. With the help of Juan “John” Ochoa, Hastings' designated court marshal, the judge gradually transformed the informal process into a fully specialized veterans court that launched last week. It will be in session at 10 a.m. every Thursday in Las Vegas Municipal Court, Department 6.
“Dealing with just veterans, we're able to take government and nonprofit services and, depending on what they need — mental health counseling, DUI/battery counseling, housing — we can provide that,” Hastings said. “If there's anybody that has sacrificed for us to give this country freedom, it's them.”
Las Vegas' new veterans court, whose opening ceremony Thursday was attended by city officials that included Mayor Carolyn Goodman, is the city's fifth specialty court — some others focus on cases that deal with DUI offenders, youths and women in need.
Other valley jurisdictions already offer a standardized veterans court, and often they work together to help veterans who have been arrested in more than one municipality, Hastings said. Buffalo, N.Y., officials tout their veterans court as the country’s first to be formally launched, in 2008.
Applicants typically are funneled into Hastings' chambers by police, attorneys and municipal court staff, though the process has yet to be perfected, the judge said. Some are even approached directly by Ochoa, who seeks out people in need at events hosted by U.S. Vets, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit organization that provides housing, counseling and career opportunities to former military members.
Ex-military personnel tend not to seek help on their own “because they have an individual, warrior mentality,” Ochoa said.
“We just kind of started with baby steps, put out the word,” said Ochoa, an Army veteran. “I'm a vet, and just seeing some of these people gave me concern. We want them to get back to a place where they feel good.”
Alleviating legal barriers is crucial in getting to that place, said U.S. Vets spokeswoman Shalimar Cabrera.
“(Legal woes) limit people from working and possibly saving money to figure out how to pay fines,” Cabrera said. “It's great to have a partnership with the courts to get that legal assistance and alternate sentencing.”
Howard Hornsby, a homeless Marine Corps veteran wrestling with an arrest warrant he acquired from a neglected speeding citation, visited the specialty court on Thursday after being referred there at U.S. Vets' annual Stand Down for Veterans event last month.
“I take care of things the best way I know how,” Hornsby said, “but I'm having a tough time.”
Fields, meanwhile, said Hastings has directed her to a government resource where she’s getting help putting her resume in the hands of potential employers.
While she’s grateful for the judge’s help, Hastings has vowed to make this her last arrest so she won’t ever need to return to his courtroom.