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Defensetracker.com » Legal » S.D. Veteran Treatment Court Enrolls First Marine

S.D. Veteran Treatment Court Enrolls First Marine

By Rick Rogers
DefenseTracker.com

Just four months old and San Diego veterans’ court is all ready celebrating milestone: Enrolling its first active-duty troop.

It might seem like a tiny victory, but by allowing the court to help one of its own, Camp Pendleton and the Marine Corps have pinned a stripe of credibility on the pilot program.

“This is something we had always hoped would happen,” said Steve Binder, an attorney with San Diego County Public Defender’s Office. “Now it has come to pass.”

The court, technically named the San Diego Veterans Treatment Review Calendar, started in March with Vietnam veteran and San Diego Superior Court Judge Roger Krauel presiding.

At that first session, two young combat veterans entered the program by agreeing to probation conditions far more strict and time-consuming than had they taken the straight jail time.

So far nine veterans and one Marine have followed suit out of nearly 80 people considered for the program. If all goes right for them, their crimes could be stricken from their records.

The court’s goal is to reintegrate them — all struggling with the psychological effects of their military service — back into society, instead of jailing them for their offenses.

Anecdotal evidence from the San Diego Sheriff’s Office and the Department of Veterans Affairs strongly suggests that Iraq and Afghanistan veterans in ever-greater numbers are landing in San Diego County jails for “impulse crimes” such as drunk driving, spouse and child abuse, bar fights and resisting arrest.

So many, in fact, that San Diego County now has upwards of 150 young veterans enmeshed in the criminal justice system and at least another 400 of all ages either in jail or facing charges.

The largest number and highest concentration of Iraq and Afghanistan combat veterans anywhere live in San Diego County.

With that population estimated at 30,000 and the county’s population at about 3.2 million, it means that roughly 1 in every 106 San Diegans has served in Iraq, Afghanistan or both.

By comparison, Los Angeles County, with a population of 10.4 million, has about 14,000 combat veterans, or one in every 743 people.

The Veterans Treatment Court is open to both active-duty troops and former service members charged with select crimes.

San Diego County and its estimated 235,000 veterans have now joined Santa Ana, Tulsa, Buffalo, Pittsburgh and dozens of places nationwide running courts focused on rehabilitating veterans through aggressive case management.

Buffalo Judge Robert Russell started the first veterans’ court in January 2008.

A hybrid of existing specialty courts —- such as domestic violence court, mental health court and drug court —- veterans’ court has been a ringing success.

Of the roughly 120 veterans enrolled in Russell’s program, 90 percent successfully completed the program —- and the recidivism rate is zero.

San Diego Attorney Judith Litzenberger, who worked with Binder to develop the court, said the recidivism rate nationwide for vet court program is a paltry 4 percent.

California’s recidivism rate was 58 percent between 2004 and 2007, one of the highest in the country, according to 2011 study by the Pew Center on States.

“If you can reach the veterans the very first time they get in trouble,” Litzenberger said, “you can stop future victims. That’s why the district attorneys are onboard.”

Below are key provisions of the Veterans Treatment Review Calendar:

— A defendant will be assigned to the VTRC based on the recommendations of the prosecutor and defense lawyer and supporting information from the probation department and agencies providing assessment and treatment.

— All of the programs of the San Diego Court are open to defendants who are on active duty, including the VTRC. In certain circumstances, military procedures allow for military sanctions to be imposed in addition to whatever a civilian court does. Where there is military jurisdiction over a crime, it is up to the prosecutor whether a case is also filed in state court.

— The VTRC will have the power to review cases already adjudicated. To do this, attorneys would make a joint recommendation to the criminal court judge conducting the probation hearing and sentencing of the defendant; or to the judge reviewing, post-sentence, the performance of probation.

Defense attorneys interested in the new program should contact Litzenberger at judelitz@aol.com. Add “VTRC Inquiry” on the subject line for a faster response.

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