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Veterans court takes a chance on violent offenders

SANTA ANA, Calif. — In one of Orange County’s traditional criminal courts, the young defendant had been seen as an aggressor who had, without provocation, used brass knuckles to beat a middle-aged man at a gas station.

In Judge Wendy Lindley’s court, the 22-year-old was all of that, but he was also a former Marine corporal who had served in Iraq.

That made all the difference.

Instead of spending two years in jail, the violent offender is going to therapy for post-traumatic stress disorder, to counseling for substance abuse and, now, to college.

Lindley presides over a court designed for combat veterans, allowing most to avoid incarceration if they plead guilty to their crimes and adhere to a strict probation program focused on intensive treatment of their underlying issues — in most cases, PTSD.

“These guys went off to war and as a result of their service were damaged, and our job is to restore them to who they were,” Lindley said.

Her court in Orange County, near sprawling Camp Pendleton, is one of about 40 specialized veterans dockets that have sprung up across the country in recent years, but Lindley is at the forefront of a new trend for these courts: taking cases involving violent crimes.

Veterans courts are part of the growing national debate about how to deal with struggling veterans who have seen years of war, and about how much, if any, special treatment they deserve.

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Many of the jurisdictions that have embraced the veterans court model are in cities with a large veteran population or those near military bases. This year a few states have passed laws calling for veterans courts, and there’s proposed federal legislation to help fund the courts.

Skeptics argue that allowing offenders to skip jail simply because they wore the uniform isn’t in the best interest of the public, especially when dealing with violence.

But proponents say it’s an effort to prevent the cycle of recidivism seen with Vietnam veterans over the last 40 years. There are about 1.7 million Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, and according to a 2009 RAND study, about one in five of them have mental health issues from their time at war. It’s those troops — and their brethren from earlier wars — that veterans courts are designed to help.

Court is in session

Lindley’s court started in 2008. Along with a public defender, a district attorney, a probation officer and an outreach worker from the Department of Veterans Affairs, she supervises the defendants’ progression through the formal probation program. It’s at least 18 months and consists of mandatory treatment at the VA, frequent court appearances before Lindley, home inspections and random drug testing. If the veteran doesn’t comply with the four-phase program, he can be kicked back to criminal court for prosecution. If the veteran is successful, he can walk away felony-free, case dismissed.

Her court is one of only a handful in the country that accepts violent offenders, but as these courts become more popular many are leaning toward taking violent offenses, according to the National Association of Drug Court Professionals.

Given that combat veterans’ PTSD issues often manifest in aggressive behavior, “it flies in the face of reason not to take violent cases,” said Isabel Apkarian, the court’s former assistant public defender. “I don’t know how you have a veterans court without taking those clients.”

Lindley’s team recently debated two prospective violent cases. One involved a vet who had shaken a baby.

“I talked to him in custody for one and half hours,” Andrea Serafin, the VA coordinator, told the team. “The severity of the crime is what concerned me, and I wasn’t able to make any kind of connection there with his combat experience.”

Lindley, who makes the final decision, said the case was “way beyond the pale of anything we intended to take in this court.”

They did accept the other case, involving a veteran who had been shot in Iraq and was charged with domestic violence for dragging his wife out of the house by her ankles.

But the team doesn’t always agree.

The Marine who left the man at the gas station — with injuries resulting in $14,000 in medical bills — almost didn’t get accepted.

“I think he kept us all up at night for different reasons,” Apkarian said.

She thought if the veterans court didn’t take him he would be lost forever.

Wendy Brough, the veterans court prosecutor, opposed him on the record.

“I personally believe that those defendants should get state prison,” she said.

The probation officer had his doubts, too, but Serafin thought otherwise.

“I fought hard for him,” she said. “I could see him being that normal kid working at Costco doing his thing and going to family barbecues and then he just snapped. And I thought, ‘He needs us.’ ”

His family fought hard for him, too. Nearly two dozen family members showed up on his behalf, bringing the letters he wrote during his deployment.

“The letters just became darker and darker,” Apkarian said.

The Marine’s assault victim wasn’t convinced. The man was appalled at the idea of his assailant not getting sentenced to jail, Apkarian said.

In his victim’s impact statement, the man said the veteran “hit me at least twice in the face so bad that my mouth burst,” and that his assailant’s military uniform didn’t make up for the crime.

Apkarian said it’s natural for a victim to want to see someone punished for hurting them, but it was up to the court to balance that with what will protect society in the long run.

“I argue that they and the public are better off. We can warehouse them — whether its six months or six years — and they are back on the street without the coping skills they need,” she said.

Lindley decided to take a chance on the former Marine.

“And he’s doing beautifully,” she said.

Last summer, when announcing in court that he was enrolling in college, he teared up as he described how the Marine Corps teaches them not to be emotional, “but in this program I learned to deal with pain, and it brings positive change.”

Opening statements

When the veterans arrive in Lindley’s court, they’re often defeated, ashamed and addicted to drugs or alcohol.

“They have once had the pride of success and of earning their uniform and being a respectable person who’s been entrusted with protecting our country. And I think the fall is harder for them for that reason,” Lindley said.

Despite the seriousness of the crimes — assault, domestic violence, and one case of someone carrying grenades — veterans court doesn’t much resemble criminal court.

One recent Tuesday with about 15 veterans sitting on benches in the courtroom, a smiling Lindley strode in wearing her judge’s robe and greeted them with “Good afternoon.”

The courtroom cheerfully responded in unison, like an elementary school classroom: “Good afternoon.”

She called out the veterans’ names so each could stand and be recognized with applause. There’s a lot of clapping in Lindley’s veterans court. Even the prosecutor joins in to give encouragement.

Lindley quickly checks in with each defendant for a progress report that is more like a casual conversation than a formal hearing.

“Adam, come on up,” she said last month.

They talked about his kids, whom the judge had met the week before.

“The older one has your eyes,” she said.

“You’re my principal whenever they ask about you,” the veteran said.

Lindley plays a maternal role with the 38 defendants. She says her job is a lot like parenting, doling out praise along with the discipline. She has an easy rapport with the veterans, nodding her head appreciatively as they share successes. But she doesn’t hide her disappointment from those who have messed up.

A former Marine corporal didn’t make it up to the podium before Lindley was shaking her head and telling him: “You blew it, buddy. Big time. Not smart. Not smart at all.”

He hung his head and his parade-rest stance sunk deeper to the floor with each admonishment. The lawyers here are mostly silent. The VA coordinator and the probation officer do the talking. Both expressed sharp disappointment with the former Marine, who had left his treatment facility without permission. The bailiff handcuffed him on his way to a week in jail.

Near the end of the session, a former petty officer third class sat handcuffed, waiting to be taken to jail for failing a drug test.

The public defender pointed out that it was the sailor’s birthday.

“OK, you know what we do,” Lindley prompted the court. They serenaded him with “Happy Birthday.”

“Next year, it’s going to be a better birthday,” Lindley told him.

Closing arguments

Veterans are a sympathetic group, so it’s not hard to persuade people to give them a break, Apkarian said.

But many of the defendants who end up in the criminal justice system are victims of trauma, and Lindley recognizes that her veterans court chooses to elevate one group out of many whose trauma likely influenced their crimes.

But for her, the type of trauma — war — makes it acceptable.

“I think we can justify it when we look at combat veterans,” Lindley said. “These human beings chose to put their life on the line for our freedom, so I think that intellectually I’m comfortable with saying I think our veterans deserve this special treatment.”

California law says only veterans who were in combat are eligible — a distinction that is important to Lindley and her team. Unlike many of the other veterans courts that take all veterans, they believe the special court is only warranted for combat veterans.

Lindley’s team searches for a connection between the combat and the criminal behavior.

“One of the things we do is look at a person’s history before they served our country,” she said. “If they have no intersection at all with criminal justice, then we conclude that their intersection now is a result of, probably, PTSD, TBI and of course substance abuse as a result of [those conditions].”

That doesn’t mean veterans are cleared of guilt — only that they get a break in sentencing. “I firmly believe we are ultimately responsible for what we do,” Lindley said.

Still, she maintains the country needs to take care of its combat veterans, especially since so many don’t get the mental health treatment they need while on active duty. In her court she’s seen success. Next month, five veterans will graduate from the program.

“We’ve got to stand up and take responsibility. And this works,” Lindley said. “It’s just too bad it can’t happen before it gets to this point.”

mccloskeym@stripes.osd.mil

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