San Joaquin County opened its doors to its newly-minted Veterans Treatment Court on February 2, 2015, becoming one of approximately 200 such courts across the United States. Since that time, the Court has had three veterans graduate, one of whom is now a successful law student, and another who is now a valued, salaried employee of the Veterans Administration in Palo Alto. The program presently has five veterans on track to graduate on October 3, 2016.
Veterans are treated a little differently than others in the criminal justice system because veterans deserve different treatment. Veterans have served honorably in the military to keep us all safe and to preserve our freedoms and way of life. In doing so, these citizens have already sacrificed part of their lives for their country. This fact supports a little different treatment for these unique defendants.
Veterans Court is held on the first Monday of each month at 9:30 a.m. in Dept. 42, with Judge Barbara A. Kronlund presiding. If the first Monday of the month is a holiday, Veterans Court is held on the first Tuesday. This court is an alternative sentencing program which requires regular court appearances, mandatory attendance at various treatment sessions, and frequent random testing for substance abuse. Due to a high and growing number of combat veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injury (TBI) following their combat experience, a growing number of courts are adding a Veterans Treatment Court to their calendars. San Joaquin County followed Sacramento's first Veteran Court session by about six months. This court is set up to be a post-conviction supervision court, which offers a higher level of supervision than provided in most of the other criminal departments.
Research continues to draw a link between substance abuse and combat-related mental illness which, when left untreated, can result in veterans becoming involved in the criminal justice system. Like anyone with untreated mental illness, self-medication is often the route followed, be it alcohol abuse, drugs, or a combination thereof. One in five veterans has symptoms of a mental health disorder or cognitive impairment. One in six veterans who served in Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom suffer from a substance abuse issue.
So far, the most common offenses we see in Veterans Court are driving under the influence and domestic violence. We have seen a number of drug possession cases as well. It is common for veterans who suffer from PTSD or TBI and become involved in the criminal justice system to pick up these particular charges.
One in five veterans has symptoms of a mental health disorder or cognitive impairment. One in six veterans who served in Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom suffer from a substance abuse issue.
Research has shown that veterans typically respond favorably to the structured environment of Veterans Court, given their past experiences in the Armed Forces. A major component of Veterans Court is the Volunteer Mentor Program, which pairs honorably discharged veterans from the community with veteran defendants. Mentors support and encourage their assigned veterans over the 12-18 month program and serve as role models and veteran advocates. Gene Eacret, local attorney, has served as the Veteran Court's Mentor Coordinator and as a mentor since the inception of this Court.
In order to participate in this program, the veteran must be sentenced prior to referral to Veterans Court. One of the terms of probation must be to participate in and successfully complete Veterans Court. Typically, jail time and fines will be stayed on successful completion of the program. Not only is the conviction expunged upon successful completion, but the arrest records are sealed, which is an added benefit only offered routinely in this particular court based on the applicable Penal Code, Section 1170.9.
Once the veteran enters a guilty or no contest plea to the charge or admits the violation of probation, the judge presiding over the criminal court sentences the veteran and orders the veteran to report within 48 hours to the San Joaquin County Veteran Services Office on San Joaquin Street in Stockton to see Veteran Services Officer Virginia Wimmer for an initial eligibility assessment. The veteran is given a date to appear in Veterans Court for his or her first appearance.
Typically, jail time and fines will be stayed on successful completion of the program. Not only is the conviction expunged upon successful completion, but the arrest records are sealed.
We have generally had about 25 veterans in Veterans Court at one time, but if we are successful in securing grant money to hire a case manager, we will likely be expanding the program to serve even more veterans going forward.
The goal of Veterans Court is to connect veterans to counseling and other services and to get them out, and keep them out, of the criminal justice system in the future. Our common goal is to assist veterans to lead productive lives as contributing members of the community. The Veteran Court model has been recognized as enhancing public safety, reducing recidivism, and reintegrating veterans into mainstream society.