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Veterans Get Clean Slate Through Court Program

Above: San Diego Superior Court Judge Roger Krauel presiding at the San Diego Veterans Treatment Review Calendar.

Aired 12/19/12 on KPBS News.

Hundreds of people gathered to witness a graduating class from the San Diego Veterans Treatment Review Calendar, better known as the San Diego Veterans Court.

In the weeks before Christmas, the city of El Cajon is awash in Yuletide color.

Poinsettias adorn cafés, a garland atop the Civic Center spells out “Seasons Greetings,” holiday music drifts from passing cars.

But on a Friday afternoon, the spirit of hope pulses strongest in the jury lounge at the San Diego Superior Court.

Here hundreds of people -– including many from local veterans' groups and law enforcement -- are celebrating second chances and the American veteran.

They’ve gathered to witness a graduating class from the San Diego Veterans Treatment Review Calendar, better known as the San Diego Veterans Court.

A year ago the five young men being recognized were in crisis.

“When I came in I was pretty much a mess. I was a suicidal mess. I was a homicidal mess. I was a threat to society. I was not the person you see standing in front of you today,” said Steven, of one of graduates. (He didn’t want his last name used for fear that it might hurt his civilian job prospects.)

Steven spoke for himself, but fact is his fellow graduates also had bottomed out.

Each faced months, if not years, behind bars for crimes ranging from domestic violence, to barroom brawls, to driving under the influence.

Not only that, but their criminal records could have become indelible.

But just when things looked bleakest, there appeared an out: A little-known pilot program offered by San Diego Superior Court for veterans with otherwise clean records.

Clean, that is, minus mental issues connected to their military service that sent them off the rails.

Veterans Court wouldn’t be fast. It wouldn’t be easy. It would take at least a year complete; more likely 18 months. There would be many probation visits and many, many counseling sessions.

And failure could mean a return to jail.

But success could mean a clean slate and a new life.

“It takes someone who was law-abiding for their entire life,” said San Diego Judge Roger Krauel, explaining the San Diego Veterans Court he presides over.

“What we’re doing in veterans’ court is restoring those people. The requirement that we have is that they have been in military service and as a result of that service they develop a mental health problem or condition and that mental health problem or condition led to the criminal conduct,” Krauel said.

“Restoring those folks to previous law-abiding circumstances is what we are all about.”

Similar courts have popped up nationally since 2008 when the first one appeared in Buffalo, N.Y. And they’ve produced promising results.

San Diego County started its program nearly two years ago, after evidence suggested its 30,000 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans -– the most of anywhere in the country -- were struggling to stay on the right side of the law.

It seemed that county jails were seeing a surge in veterans, especially younger veterans.

The numbers were -- and still are -- daunting.

“We are booking in San Diego County jails now about 100 (veterans) a week. About 25 percent of those are under 35, so we can estimate that those are the folks who were involved in the post-9/11 conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan,” said Jude Litzenberger, the coordinator of the San Diego Veterans Treatment Review Calendar.

Litzenberger and attorney Steve Binder from the San Diego Office of the Public Defender worked for years to get the veterans court off the ground.

A critical part of that effort included convincing the San Diego County District Attorney’s Office that it was not a get-out-of-jail-free program.

In January 2011, the San Diego Veterans Treatment Review Calendar started with 21 members and no budget. It still has no publicly funded budget, existing instead on grants and donations.

Its first class graduated three veterans in May 2012.

The second class graduated six veterans, five of whom appeared at the December 7 ceremony. The plan is to grow the court to 40 participants next year.

And demand might push the number higher.

A new law taking effect in January giving judges more say in dismissing charges against otherwise law-abiding vets will likely stoke interest in the fledging court.

Jack Lyon, co-founder of the Veterans Village of San Diego and a Vietnam combat veteran, wishes such a court existed for his era’s combat vets. He thinks it would have made a big difference.

“The whole idea here for this generation of upcoming veterans is to have a diversionary program so that instead of having them rot away in prison they are able to receive the treatment that they earned and deserve and can rejoin mainstream society,” Lyon said.

Lyon recalled when the San Diego Veterans Court was nothing more than a few people kicking around a dream.

Now he watches teary-eyed veterans thank everyone for another chance.

“So when you watch five of these kids graduate today, that’s a victory for the community. That’s not only a victory for each of these kids, but it’s a victory for the community,” Lyon said.

“That we had the foresight, that San Diego had the foresight, to set up this veterans’ court.”

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