On a usual Monday, the calendar of the Honorable Barbara A. Kronlund will be smattered with the settlement conferences and status hearings typical of a civil judge. October 3, 2016, however, was different. That morning, a small crowd of gathered in her courtroom to await her rulings in five proceedings falling under section 1170.9 of the Penal Code.
This hearing was unusual from the start, beginning as it did with a recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance. Then, a moment of silence for a fallen comrade. Next, the acknowledgment of visitors: Anne Baird from Assemblymember Susan Talamantes Eggman's office. Erin Guy Castillo, incoming president of the San Joaquin County Bar Association. They were present to watch the court dispense justice to five men, each one a veteran that had faced personal struggles in his life after military service.
"Veterans Treatment Court helps veterans who have become involved in the criminal justice system get connected to the specific services they need to overcome the issues that brought them into the justice system in the first place."
Friends, family, and colleagues stood by—not in apprehension, as might be the case in a typical criminal proceeding, but swelling instead with pride. The five men they had come to see were about to be recognized for their courage and determination in overcoming the challenges that they had encountered in their civilian lives. All present stood by to honor these veterans as they graduated from the Veterans Treatment Court.
The Veterans Treatment Court is the newest of San Joaquin County's "collaborative courts. "It is an alternative sentencing program available to current or former members of the United States military, whether combat or non-combat and whether or not honorably discharged. It is available to veterans who have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder ("PTSD"), traumatic brain injury, military sexual trauma, or psychological or substance abuse problems requiring treatment. Those enrolled in the program must plead to the offenses for which they had been charged and must accept a sentence of probation, of which one of the terms is successful completion of Veterans Treatment Court.
"Veterans Treatment Court helps veterans who have become involved in the criminal justice system get connected to the specific services they need to overcome the issues that brought them into the justice system in the first place," Judge Kronlund explained.
"Many have PTSD and substance abuse/alcohol issues from self-medicating. We connect them to appropriate professional PTSD and substance abuse/alcohol treatment, as well as require testing, frequently interlock devices on their cars, and whatever other counseling they may need.Sometimes general mental health counseling, domestic violence counseling, etc., to address their particular needs."
"This program is intensive," added Jennifer Perkins, the Deputy Public Defender representing four of the five graduates, "but once they make it through they are better off and ready to handle any new problems that may come their way."
Once a veteran is referred to and enrolled into the Veterans Treatment Court program, his or her case will be governed by a team of individuals representing numerous agencies connected to the justice system or providing services to veterans. The team includes Virginia Wimmer, the Deputy Director of Veterans Services for the San Joaquin County Healthcare Services Agency; Amy Smith of San Joaquin County's Behavioral Health Center; Leah Emery, the Veterans Justice Outreach Specialist from the United States Department of Veterans Affairs; and representatives from the San Joaquin County Public Defender, the San Joaquin County District Attorney, the county jail and probation departments, and the Superior Court. The various members of the team coordinate to supervise enrolled veterans and get them the support that they need.
A veteran mentor is also an integral part of each veteran's team.Joshua Hunsucker, an Army Ranger and veteran of the most recent war in Iraq, attended the ceremony to support a graduate that he mentored.
"The way that I looked at it, I could relate to some of the stuff that those guys were going through," said Mr. Hunsucker, now attorney with Neumiller & Beardslee." On a certain level, we had some shared experiences. So I tried to be a sounding board for them. If they were having any issues and just wanted to talk, or there were some logistical problems that they were having, I could communicate that to the V.A. or whatever agency I needed to."
"Mentoring is '[s]ort of like when you're in the Army. Even if you have a soldier who has made a mistake, you're still there for the guy to help him through the problem. You don't leave anybody behind. You push them through.'"
Mr. Hunsucker learned about the program from Across the Bar and contacted Gene Eacret, also a veteran who formerly served as the Veterans Treatment Court's mentor coordinator. Mr. Eacret also mentors young attorneys as part of the San Joaquin County Bar Association's mentorship program, which is how he encountered Mr. Hunsucker.
"He knew that I was a veteran, too," explained Mr. Hunsucker, who is now mentoring a second veteran in the program."I said, 'What can I do?'"
What he could do, mostly, was just be a friend." Just let them know that someone cares about them," he said.
"Sort of like when you're in the Army. Even if you have a soldier who has made a mistake, you're still there for the guy to help him through the problem. You don't leave anybody behind. You push them through. That's what I see my role as."
Veterans that wish to become mentors are invited to contact Richard Castleman, the mentor coordinator for the Veterans Treatment Court, at (209) 603-4257 or . Mr. Castleman also notes that a nonprofit organization is being set up for the purpose of aiding the program and he welcomes any interest in participating.
The program benefits the veterans in several ways. In addition to the support of a veteran mentor and the services provided to the veteran participant, the program may also allow veterans to complete their involvement in the criminal justice system early. Importantly, successful completion can result in the dismissal and expungement of the convictions and the sealing of the veterans' arrest records under Penal Code section 1203.4.
"The greatest success is seeing by actions and words our veteran participants getting something out of their treatment programs and, in turn, taking control of their lives and going to school or getting good jobs or promotions, dealing with life's curveballs yet keeping it together and maintaining sobriety," Judge Kronlund remarked.
"It's a beautiful thing to see and to be a part of; a real honor for me personally."
How long does it take to graduate?
"It's not punishment, it's treatment," Mr. Eacret observed. Accordingly, graduation dates vary from case to case.
"Successful participants can have their convictions dismissed and expunged and can have record of their arrests sealed."
Another way that Veterans Treatment Court is unique? Having read her order dismissing the veterans' cases from the bench, Judge Kronlund then announced how proud she was of each of the graduates.
"This is because of you," she told them." Each of you, standing here. You're a success."
Each veteran had been in the program for more than a year. Some of them had been resistant to treatment as first, but persevered through the difficulty to complete the program.
"I am thrilled and honored… to see our veterans who are helping themselves and working hard to tackle their particular demons and get back into maintstream society," Judge Kronlund added.
"These are folks who have been successful in life, have been successful in the military, so of course they can once again be successful in their treatment and work their way out of the criminal justice system for good."