Legal system weighs adjustments

Clark County court officials are looking to start a specialty court to help some veterans who get in trouble with the law.

The court would combine elements of existing mental health and drug courts, said Steve Grierson, assistant county court administrator.

He said plans call for a "small pilot court" for veterans accused of nonviolent crimes. Later, he said, the court could be expanded.

"We’d like to see if it’s beneficial for veterans to have a specialized calendar and specialized services," he said. "I think it is."

The first veterans court in the nation was started in Buffalo, N.Y., earlier this year. Veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder and other problems are set up with counselors, helped with job placement and assigned mentors.

An estimated 300,000 Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans have PTSD or other mental health disorders. Studies show that PTSD sufferers are more likely to be substance abusers and perpetrators of domestic violence.

Family Court Judge Jennifer Elliott, who oversees adult drug court, said the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs or judges could refer veterans to the planned speciality court.

As in drug and mental health courts, the nature of the charges and the condition of the defendant would determine eligibility, she said.

Elliott said the county has no timetable for launching the "therapeutic, problem-solving" effort for veterans.

"The biggest barrier is finding available courtroom space," Elliott said.

Another obstacle is funding, she said.

An infusion of state or county dollars in troubled economic times is unlikely, Grierson said.

Federal help is a possibility, Elliott said.

A bipartisan bill introduced in Congress earlier this year proposed giving grants to court systems that establish veterans treatment courts. But the measure did not pass.

Two states, California and Minnesota, have passed laws permitting judges the option of giving alternative sentences to veterans diagnosed with combat-related psychological or drug problems. In Minnesota, judges are required to ask whether a convicted defendant is a veteran.

Clark County does not track whether criminal defendants are war veterans, but some high-profile criminal cases have involved men recently returned from war.

Former Army Spc. Matthew Sepi, an Iraq veteran, shot and killed a woman and wounded a man in 2005. Walking to a convenience store to buy beer, Sepi was carrying an AK-47 rifle under his coat when he encountered the couple in a Las Vegas alley. They appeared threatening.

Sepi told officers he used his military training in reaction to the feeling of being ambushed.

Murder charges against Sepi were dismissed after a prosecutor concluded he had acted in self-defense.

Sepi pleaded guilty to lesser charges and was ordered to undergo drug and alcohol counseling at a VA facility in Arizona. Those convictions were dropped after he completed treatment.

He earlier had contacted the VA for help with PTSD, his family said.

The Clark County public defender’s office is handling at least one case involving an Afghanistan war veteran with symptoms of PTSD.

Elliott said the court system should help veterans whose problems stem from combat-related trauma.

"We need to embrace these soldiers when they return and help them achieve sobriety, employment, and housing," she said.

Contact reporter Alan Maimon at amaimon @reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0404.

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