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Veterans Court Study Proves Encouraging for Organizers

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

Each week, about 25 Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans are booked into San Diego County jails.

That number has held steady throughout the past few years and organizers of the San Diego Veterans Treatment Review Calendar hope to slowly bring that figure down. The findings of a recent study show that they are, indeed, moving toward that goal.

Aired 4/12/13 on KPBS News.

Early results in a report on the first two years of the San Diego Veterans Treatment Review Calendar — better known as the Veterans Court — are encouraging.

Started in early 2011, the program, better known as Veterans Court, focuses on rehabilitating Iraq- and Afghanistan-era veterans charged with crimes tied to diagnosed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, traumatic brain injury, military sexual trauma or other mental health issues suffered during their service.

Successful completion of the program can, in some cases, lead to an expungement of all charges, which is sometimes crucial when veterans apply for jobs.

Though the sample size is small — just 41 veterans are enrolled and 10 have graduated — some of the key findings in a report about the nationally-recognized program are encouraging to its organizers.

According to a judicial report approved by a San Diego Superior Court Judge, Veterans Court has saved taxpayers more than $1 million dollars per year in jail-related costs. Its recidivism rate is at 7.3 percent, a fraction of the rate seen in many court diversion programs.

Three of the dozens of participants have reoffended and the charges brought against them were misdemeanor offenses. The 10 graduates of the program have remained crime free.

Those and many other details are found in the “Veterans Treatment Review Court Pilot Program Cumulative Report: First Two Years of Operation.”

San Diego Superior Court Judge Roger W. Krauel, a Vietnam veteran who presides over the court, signed the 11-page report.

“The veterans treatment court model that we use here in San Diego is a good tool. It costs less than incarceration and works better than incarceration,” said Jude Litzenberger, the court’s coordinator.

“To date we have saved over $2.1 million dollars in jail costs," Litzenberger added. "We’re changing lives and keeping a community very safe.”

In 2012 San Diego County’s Veterans Court received the National Association of Counties Achievement Award.

Veterans advocates in San Diego County began pushing for a special court program aimed at rehabilitating Iraq and Afghanistan veterans about five years ago after seeing growing numbers of them land in county jails. Advocates also took note of a veterans court program that began in Buffalo in 2008 and had proved effective.

Litzenberger said such a court made sense for San Diego County since it is home to the nation's largest concentration of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans. An estimated 38,000 veterans of the two wars live in the County.

A VA report suggests that of those 38,000, roughly 13,300 have or will develop mental health issues. The same report estimates that 6,700 will go to jail for their crimes, 1,500 of them on felony charges.

Recent changes in California law, Litzenberger said, make it more appealing for veterans to endure the probation- and counseling-intensive program. Those changes will likely spur more veterans to seek admission into the Veteran's Court program, Litzenberger added.

Greater outreach into county prisons might also increase interest. The report notes that only a fraction of the veterans behind bars are checked for mental health issues.

It is unclear whether federal sequestration and tight state budgets will prevent the San Diego Veterans Treatment Court from expanding to reach more than the 60 participants who fill spaces that are currently included in the budget.

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