Veterans who commit lesser crimes in Clark County could soon be sent to a proposed specialty District Court program aimed at connecting them with resources to cope after returning from combat.
The creation of a veterans court appeared to be well under way Tuesday with support from the County Commission and the legal community, including District Attorney Steve Wolfson.
But Commissioner Steve Sisolak, who sponsored the discussion with Commissioner Larry Brown, warned that the concept was not a pass for veterans who commit crimes.
“This is not a get-out-of-jail-free card for veterans,” Sisolak said. “It’s not like you go to a program, your record is expunged, and it’s not a problem. That was never my intent.”
Discussions began at a state level, when Assemblyman Elliot Anderson, a Marine, received complaints that legislation passed in 2009 that created veterans courts didn’t make them mandatory.
Anderson, a Las Vegas Democrat, has said that veterans returning from combat often “lash out” because of psychological problems and too often are not aware of benefits and help they could receive.
Veterans charged with violent felony crimes would not be diverted to the speciality court, but those with lesser offenses could receive the attention they need, Anderson said.
Washoe is the only county that has established a veterans court at the district court level. Henderson Municipal Court established a veterans court program last year.
Funding for the proposed court could come from legislative monies, the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Nevada Supreme Court or other grants, but Anderson said it would cost little money to create.
Wolfson said he was concerned because the statute allows the dismissal of a veteran’s case if that person is accepted into the program.
“There are some veterans who deserve treatment from the program and deserve the benefits, but through the nature of the offense, maybe their case shouldn’t be dismissed. Maybe it should be reduced to a misdemeanor. I have questions and concerns, and frankly it needs a lot more discussion,” Wolfson said.
But the concept has the green light from his office, which is “ready to participate,” he added.
Public Defender Phil Kohn said the statute is unclear on what kinds of crime veterans court would handle.
“If someone is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, it’s not unlikely violence would occur,” Kohn said. “We don’t want those people to be excluded from the program.”
Anderson expressed frustration to commissioners that the court had not already been created out of the existing legislation.
“I thought it was a funding issue,” Anderson said. “But it’s either a turf war or it just didn’t get done.”
But Justice of the Peace Melanie Andress-Tobiasson of Las Vegas Justice Court already has been identifying veterans in the system and taking on their cases. She set up a system with the jail to identify veterans during intake, research the cases, notify the judges that their cases involve veterans and ask whether they want to transfer the case to her courtroom. The makeshift veterans court is once a month at 9 a.m. on Fridays. She has helped about 150 veterans in the past two years.
“A lot of times they come in and have no idea what’s available to them,” Andress-Tobiasson said. “We provide access to resources, and it’s been extremely successful.”
District Judge Linda Bell, who will take over specialty courts next month, assured commissioners that “there is no turf war,” and that she wants to expand the veterans court program. Bell has identified 20 veterans in the drug court program and others in the mental health and DUI court programs. The plan is to bring all of them together by September.
“Some folks in Justice Court, that’s a good place for them,” Bell said. “Some people might need something a little more intensive, and we can provide that. Our hope is that we would be able to coordinate efforts, work together and make it a model veterans court program.”
Legislators have agreed to draft a bill and send a letter to District Court asking for the establishment of the veterans court. If the court does not make the change voluntarily, the bill would mandate the creation of the specialty court, a component commissioners expressed concerns about.
Contact reporter Kristi Jourdan at
firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-455-4519.