Lack of specialty court in Clark County upsets veterans


Aggression is a survival tool for military personnel: kill the enemy and come home.

But veterans returning to civilian life bearing the scars of their experiences sometimes struggle with the conditioning that may have saved them in combat. It's an internal battle that may even lead to criminal conduct, such as using drugs or domestic violence.

"You can't just come (home) and turn it off because you're out of the doggone military," said Steve Sanson, president of the advocacy group Veterans in Politics, who has led the charge to see Clark County's Eighth Judicial District develop its own veterans court. "It just does not happen that way."

Two years ago, the Nevada Legislature enacted a law giving court systems across the state the authority to set up a specialty court for defendants who are veterans. But Sanson has become increasingly frustrated that Clark County, home to about two-thirds of the more than 330,000 veterans living in Nevada, lags behind other counties in establishing such a program.

Efforts in Washoe and Churchill counties already have produced about 20 graduates of veteran specialty courts, Sanson said.

"I don't understand why Clark County, which has a high vet population here, is so far behind those counties," Sanson said. "That's what floors me."

Clark County officials say efforts have been made to develop a veterans specific docket in the specialty courts, but admit the Eighth Judicial District is lagging behind others in the state.

SPECIALTY COURT

The first veterans specialty court was started in Buffalo, N.Y., in 2008, aimed at steering veterans suffering from substance abuse issues or mental health problems, including post-traumatic stress disorder , away from criminal court and into the specialty court to provide treatment and counseling and keep them out of jail.

Since the Buffalo court began, more than 50 such specialty courts have popped up across the nation.

In 2009, the Nevada Legislature passed NRS 176A.280 allowing any judicial district in the state to create such a court. The law itself is fashioned after other specialty courts that have been created in Clark County, including drug, DUI and mental health court.

The goal was to get nonviolent offenders out of the rotating doors of the Clark County Detention Center and provide guidance and treatment to prevent defendants from reoffending, while saving tax dollars.

Once a defendant successfully completes specialty court treatment, the original criminal case that landed them there in the first place is dismissed.

VETERANS' SPECIAL NEEDS

So why do veterans need their own court?

Pushing veterans into specialty courts already established does not address unique issues that veterans, especially those who have seen combat, must overcome when adjusting to life back home, Sanson said.

A Marine veteran of the Gulf War, where he was a helicopter gunner and flew on more than a dozen sorties, Sanson had his own bouts with post-traumatic stress disorder when he came home.

"For me it was loud noises," the 43-year-old said, noting that he now hates the Fourth of July, the holiday that celebrates the freedom he fought for. "I can't stand it when those firecrackers go off."

For many veterans, Sanson said, the root of their mental health issues can be traced back to their military training.

"The military trains a veteran to be extremely aggressive. That's how they survive. That's how they kill the enemy and come back in one piece. But their mind is gone," he said.

When veterans come home, some turn to drugs and alcohol to help overcome those issues.

"That's only a Band-Aid to mask the problem. The real issue is the anger. The real issue is the bad memory," he said, which can lead to criminal conduct, whether it's using drugs or even violent offenses such as domestic violence, road rage or assault and battery.

Sanson understands there probably are funding issues in developing a specialty court specifically for veterans, but he said there are other things that can be done, starting with identifying which criminal defendants are veterans.

While some local judges have begun asking defendants if they are veterans, others have not.

In his continuing effort to raise awareness of the issue Sanson has been meeting with judges and the public defenders office to get them to start asking those questions.

"It should be as normal as, 'How do you plead? Are you a veteran?' "

GOOD IDEA, NO FUNDING

There seems to be plenty of support among jurists, Sanson said, though they are slow to act.

Public Defender Phil Kohn agrees more can be done. He said he is stepping up his efforts to make sure all deputy public defenders ask their clients if they are veterans.

"I believe in the concept," Kohn said, "The idea isn't to just give people a pass; it's about getting people better."

But Kohn said if a specific specialty court for veterans is set up, funding -- always in short supply -- is needed for the necessary support personnel that makes the courts work, including attorneys and councilors.

Kohn said it's great that the Legislature passed the law, but it would have been nice if they had funded it too.

"It's good politics and good policy. But not if it's not backed up by resources," he said.

a court of their own

District Judge Kathleen Delaney, who takes over the specialty courts on June 27, said what Sanson wants to see happen is already under way at the Regional Justice Center, but it's far from where it needs to be.

A veterans specific docket already exists under drug court and has about 10 cases on the list that are dealt with separately from other drug cases.

And a representative from the federal Department of Veterans Affairs is present in the specialty courts to help with veteran specific issues.

"There is absolutely room for improvement," the judge said.

Judges and lawyers need to get into the habit of proactively identifying veterans who are going through the criminal justice system and attempt to get those who meet the criteria to get into specialty courts that exist.

Delaney said it's unlikely that only 10 veterans are currently in the justice system in Clark County. Washoe County has 50 in its veterans court program alone, and Delaney expects Clark County will quickly surpass Washoe when local jurists start effectively identifying veterans.

But that's the first step, Delaney said.

"Once we have enough people identified as veterans in the specialty courts then I do believe there is every desire ... to carve out and establish a fully separate (veterans) court."

Contact reporter Francis McCabe at fmccabe@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-1039.

 

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