A Second Chance
By Peter Sleeth
Some legal experts say that soldiers who commit minor crimes after returning from battle deserve an option other than jail. Veterans court gives them a shot at redemption.
The bumper stickers are easy to embrace: “We Support Our Troops.” But the soldiers who stagger home from the battlefield don’t always get the support they seek. Disability benefits can take years to arrive. Counseling can’t always undo the trauma they suffered. Some veterans end up in jail, leaving the courts to decide: Does the fact that they served their country earn them a second chance?
The philosophy behind veterans court says yes. As the pullout of troops in Afghanistan intensifies, more and more soldiers will end up in the legal system as they try to cope with the aftereffects of a little-understood war. In Klamath County, the first veterans court in Oregon, soldiers appear before Judge Marci W. Adkisson JD’88. Part mom, part Mother Superior, Adkisson every week must move beyond her role as an arbiter of justice and help rehabilitate criminals.
“Some people want to come to veterans court even if it would be easier in regular court,” said Adkisson, a diminutive blonde who shrinks to 5’5” when she steps down from the bench. “I tell them they don’t have to do this...I’m going to reward if it’s appropriate and I’m going to punish if it’s appropriate.”
A Measure of Mercy
Veterans court, a new addition to the legal system, is built on the idea that veterans who commit low-level crimes deserve some measure of mercy for serving a country that has been slow to recognize their unique needs. Modeled after drug and mental health courts, veterans courts emphasize treatment and diversion over punishment, getting veterans help for their problems before they find themselves in a hole too deep with substance abuse, mental health problems and crime.
That this judicial experiment is getting its first full-fledged Oregon tryout among the sagebrush and volcanic carvings of Klamath County is numerically appropriate. The conservative county’s veterans comprise 12 percent of the population of 66,380 people, while statewide veterans comprise about 9 percent of the population. Lane County started a veterans court last March and Marion County debuted a new veterans court last October under Judge Vance Day JD’91. Klamath County’s court has been operating since 2010.
The idea came from retired Klamath County District Attorney Edwin I. Caleb. While watching a public television news show about veterans courts in Buffalo, N.Y., three years ago — he was up for re-election at the time — Caleb said he found the possibilities intriguing. He thought veterans court would be popular with voters and a chance to lower costs at the county jail. If a veteran was receiving treatment from the Department of Veterans Affairs instead of occupying a jail cell, Caleb reasoned, it could be a better deal for everyone.
“I called the people back there and asked them how it worked and it didn’t seem impossible to me,” said Caleb, who retired last December. “I figured, ‘Why not?’ So I started working on rounding everybody up.”
Veterans courts, which exist in nearly 30 states, are almost entirely a local affair, designed, implemented and operated by county justice officials working — sometimes quite loosely — from the model developed in Buffalo, N.Y., by Buffalo City Court Judge Robert Russell Jr. in 2008. How they work varies in each of the more than 100 courts now operating nationwide.
Some courts apply only to combat veterans. Others only allow veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Most, but not all, require a guilty plea for the veteran to participate. Still others don’t allow anyone with less than an honorable discharge from the military. Virtually all focus on veterans who are dealing with drug, alcohol or mental health problems; in fact, Klamath County only admits veterans who suffer from at least one of the three conditions. Eighty-five percent of the veterans who have passed through Adkisson’s court have been dually diagnosed with mental health problems and substance abuse.
Klamath County’s district attorney can veto participation by a veteran, but that is rare, said Steve Tillson, the coordinator of the county’s treatment courts. Of the 39 veterans admitted as of Jan. 1, 2013, 23 remained in the program, 12 have graduated, three were terminated and one was killed in an automobile accident prior to completing the program. Not a single graduate has committed a new crime, Tillson said.
Most of the veterans courts nationwide have been operating for fewer than three years, the low end of statistically significant recidivism rates. Yet recidivism is by most accounts very low, in part because many of the veterans are first-time offenders who are greeted by a system that tailors treatment programs to the individual.
Broad and Inclusive
Soldiers leaving the military may carry with them extensive psychological problems that, if not addressed, can spill over into drug and alcohol abuse, suicide, depression and crime. Suicide is at epidemic levels in the military, and the Department of Defense calls substance abuse within the ranks a public health crisis. Of the approximately 834,467 veterans from the Afghanistan and Iraq wars who have used Department of Veterans Affairs benefits, 53 percent have been diagnosed with mental disorders of some degree. Legal experts say many of those veterans are bound to end up in the nation’s jails and prisons.
Recognizing the problem, Klamath County from the beginning took a broad and inclusive approach to its veterans court. Veterans from all wars are welcomed. They must plead guilty to their offense and agree to an 18-month program that includes a combination of mental health treatment, drug testing, vocational counseling and other programs. The program excludes sexual offenses, Measure 11 crimes, commercial drug offenses, and anyone who is currently on a medical marijuana program.
Almost everyone involved agrees that running cases through the regular court docket is far easier for the defendant. In criminal court it’s simple: you’re innocent or guilty. In veterans court, everyone is guilty and everyone has to get better.
“One of the Best Decisions I’ve Ever Made”
Travis Brown refuses to fault his many missions in and around Baghdad for his troubles today. Still, after being sent to Iraq with the Oregon National Guard in 2009 for a one-year stint, he returned to his hometown of Klamath Falls a little different from when he left.
“I don’t blame Iraq,” said Brown, 23, whose wiry frame and close-cropped military haircut mark him as a soldier. “I blame myself, because everything is a choice and I made that choice myself.“
In Baghdad his job had been working as security for military commanders, careening through the brown streets of the jumbled city and trying to avoid ambushes and bombs. Back in his hometown, the explosives were internal.
In August 2011, after a domestic disturbance call, he was charged with menacing. While being booked, he noticed a flier about veterans court and asked to be part of it.
“It just so happened to be one of the best decisions I ever made,” he said. “They understand the veteran. They are not there to throw the hammer at you; they are there to help you be successful.”
Jail intake is where the Klamath County veterans court gets the majority of its clients. In the more than two years the court has been operating, almost all of its participants were self-referrals from the booking desk. In Lane County, which started its veterans court in March 2012, most of the veterans come on referrals from the Lane County district attorney. But severe budget cutbacks have forced the district attorney to stop prosecuting the kind of lower level crimes that fill therapy courts, said Judge Cynthia Carlson.
“That’s the terrible irony of this situation,” said Carlson, who helped start the program. “We have funding for treatment...all of this has been hard fought for and is in place. We can treat them. But if we don’t have the referrals...”
A Camaraderie Among Veterans
Each Tuesday, prior to the in-court sessions for veterans, Adkisson, Tillson and a treatment team of attorneys, employment specialists and representatives from the Department of Veterans Affairs gather in a conference room behind Adkisson’s nondescript courtroom. They discuss their upcoming cases that day, tentatively agree on the best course for each veteran and try to figure out the particulars such as basic shelter, jail time and job counseling. Some veterans end up in nearby White City at a Department of Veterans Affairs residential facility.
At a recent meeting, the treatment team was filled with veterans. In veterans courts across the nation, many of the probation officers, judges and counselors are veterans themselves, or have family members who served. Volunteer mentors typically are veterans themselves, creating a camaraderie among the veterans to be treated and the ones doing the treating.
Weekly and bi-weekly court appearances affords close monitoring of each veteran, although if a defendant is progressing well, he or she might only show up every four weeks. The court is a hybrid of several adjudicatory processes. Veterans may enter into a diversion agreement, conditional discharge or simply avoid a prison sentence by completing the program. The options are determined on a case-by-case basis through negotiations between the defense attorney and the district attorney.
Stephen R. Hedlund JD’02 is Klamath County’s public defender and represents virtually all the clients in veterans court. He believes the program is a better choice for veterans than regular court, despite the mandatory guilty plea.
“With these guys, especially with the PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) issues they go through, there is just not a general recognition of this when you go through the regular docket,” Hedlund said.
Last August, Travis Brown’s case came up before the treatment team — and not because he was about to graduate. Instead, Brown had been arrested in a second domestic violence case.
Brown had completed 13 months of the program. But the most recent charge of menacing meant he might be headed to the regular court docket, where it seemed a conviction was certain. That was a problem for Brown, because he has an infant son with whom he does not want to lose visitation rights. Successful completion of veterans court likely would lead to the charges being dropped.
“My son is a big motivation,” Brown said. “I need him back in my life.”
Adkisson, Hedlund and the rest of the team came up with a plan: He would commit to another 18 months in the program, add in a program for domestic violence counseling and continue his regular Tuesday court appearances. Brown would get another stab at repairing his life.
“It’s like a second chance.” Brown said later. It’s awesome.”
The idea that veterans deserve preferential treatment in some courts isn’t universally accepted. In some states, the American Civil Liberties Union has voiced concerns about equal treatment under the law. Veterans, the ACLU says, shouldn’t get their charges dropped based on their military status because non-military defendants don’t always get that option.
But Caleb, Klamath County’s former district attorney, said he has no qualms about preferential treatment. “They gave us exclusive service. They gave us their lives in many instances,” he said. “I’m not a guy who feels you have to put everybody in jail. Most of the criminals aren’t necessarily bad.”
Clark County, Washington District Court Judge James P. Swanger JD’79 said veterans court serves another purpose: it stretches judges, removing some of the adversarial relationship from the courtroom.
“You kind of have to step out of your role, the traditional thinking, and have a more therapeutic or restorative justice in mind,” he said.
Swanger said he believes the combination of a shift in thinking among judges, combined with the support veterans give each other in the programs, works to everyone’s advantage. “The camaraderie among the clients, the support they get from the VA and their mentors, I think bodes well for their success,” he said.
A Changed Approach
Back in Klamath County, Judge Adkisson has similar thoughts. She sits one day as a judge in veterans court; the rest of her week is consumed with the standard trial docket. Her time with veterans has changed her approach to jurisprudence, she said. “What I always say to people is I wish I could do all my criminal courts the way we do veterans court, because it is so much more involved and personal,” she said. She has tried that to some extent by taking a more therapeutic approach when she considers it appropriate.
“I talk to people a little more, whereas before...maybe I ran through it faster,” she said.
Adkisson grew up in nearby Lakeview, a childhood of “4H and family.” She wanted to come back after law school on the wet side of the state to work in a small town in the arid desert of Eastern Oregon. Adkisson married an Air Force veteran and said the appeal of being a local is knowing her local bank clerk and occasionally running into one-time defendants at the grocery store.
Or being able to double-check a veteran’s story.
Not long ago, one veteran told her he couldn’t make his upcoming court date.
“Why?” Adkisson asked.
“I have to go to my grandfather’s funeral in Lakeview,” he replied.
That evening, Adkisson called her sister in Lakeview. She asked who had died recently. “Only Chuck Reed,” her sister said. Reed was a family friend and no relation to the veteran.
At his next court appearance, Adkisson asked the veteran his grandfather’s name. He replied, “Chuck Reed.”
“He’s not your grandfather,” Adkisson replied. “I know Chuck Reed and I know he’s not your grandfather.”
The veteran eventually returned to the regular court docket. He is now on probation.
“I’m going to reward if it’s appropriate and I’m going to punish if it’s appropriate.” —Judge Marci W. Adkisson JD’88
Out of 39 Klamath County veterans admitted
- 23 remain in program
- 12 graduated
- 4 terminated*
- Not a single graduate has committed a new crime.
*One veteran was killed in an auto accident before graduating.
Source: Steve Tillson, coordinator of the Klamath County treatment court.
States with the highest number of veterans courts
- 12 - New York, Pennsylvania
- 10 - Texas
- 9 - California
- 8 - Illinois, Wisconsin
- 5 - Florida
- 4 - Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Missouri, Washington
Source: Justice for Vets