The armored tank ferrying Eric Gonzalez’s U.S. Marine Corps commander rolled over a 300-pound homemade bomb on a battlefield in Afghanistan.
“The vehicle was burning and those flames were darker than oil,” said Gonzalez, now 23, a witness to the 2009 death of Sgt. Major Robert James Cottle, his commander.
“It’s a vivid image that will never go away.”
It was one of many traumatic images that haunted the young Marine, who enlisted straight out of high school in 2007, after he returned three years later to his hometown of Rialto, CA.
But instead of seeking help, he let his emotions rage. He randomly snapped at strangers for, say, failing to open a supermarket door. And he self-medicated with alcohol.
Ironically, that may have saved his life. After a dinner date with friends in July 2011, he left a North Fullerton, CA restaurant inebriated, eventually crashing his Silverado pick-up truck into an electrical transformer. The next thing he knew, California Highway Patrol officers were shouting invectives at him.
“They were saying I was trying to run over and hit a cop, and that there was video evidence,” said Gonzalez.
Gonzalez was charged with assault on an officer, resisting arrest, destruction of property and Driving While Intoxicated (DWI)—and he was facing serious prison time.
“I’d never had a speeding ticket, never a parking ticket (before),” he said.
But what could have been a tragic end for a young soldier who had risked death for his country was avoided, thanks to a judge named Wendy Lindley.
Instead of sending him to trial, Lindley, the presiding judge in Orange County Combat Veterans Court, ordered him into drug treatment and related counseling programs. She made clear Gonzalez would get no second chance: any major foul up, and she’d let a criminal court jury decide his fate.
It was exactly what Gonzalez needed.
Currently a member of Camp Pendelton’s 4th Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion’s Marine reserve unit, he has stayed out of trouble since. He’s now studying sound engineering at the Art Institute of Los Angeles.
A Path Back
Hundreds of troubled veterans like Gonzalez have found a path back to civilian society thanks to veterans courts. Some 130 courts are now in session around the U.S., and an additional 30 await vetting by the National Association of Drug Court Professionals (NADCP).
The courts are modeled partly on drug treatment courts, which emerged 25 years ago as an alternative to imprisoning individuals convicted of non-violent offenses often stemming from problems of addiction.
Chris Deutsch, a spokesman for the NADCP says the special courts for veterans are needed because many former military personnel in similar straits often fell through the cracks of a justice system that did not take into account the mental health issues, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, which fueled their addiction or aggressive behavior—issues which drug courts are not equipped to handle.,
Incidents of assault, road rage and even weapons charges are often traceable to post-traumatic stress disorder, he added.
Although the military provides counseling for returning vets, Gonzalez didn’t bother to use them.
“Drugs and alcohol are cheaper than therapists,” he said.
The court’s target population is generally limited to non-violent veterans. Still, said Deutsch, veterans court judges are encouraged not to be overly rigid about which defendants they accept into their prison-diversion program.
“We train jurisdictions to approach eligibility [by] keeping it as broad as possible,” Deutsch said, “so that you can take each case on an individual basis … Courts are looking at assault, weapons charges and domestic violence to see if the [criminally charged person] would be a good candidate.”
A veteran who appears in the special court is assigned a team that can include social workers, defense lawyers, prosecutors, police officers, U.S. Veterans Administration representatives, and even former military personnel. Under the judge’s overall supervision, the team is dedicated to helping the vet develop the emotional skills and confidence to navigate civilian life.
Veterans remain under court supervision for at least a year, but sometimes as long as two years. They are required maintain their regimen of prescription drugs for easing mental illness, counseling, and anti-substance abuse programs, as well as attend educational programs they are assigned to by the court.
There are benchmarks for completing certain tasks, appointments to keep, places and behaviors to avoid. But the rigid structure, in fact, suits many veterans who have found themselves at loose ends when they are freed of the military discipline that was ingrained in their service.
“Often, they come in standing at parade rest, their back straight and looking the judge in the eye: ‘Yes, sir. No, sir.’ … The judge almost takes on the commanding officer role … There’s this feel of being in a military unit,” Deutsch said.
“They buy in a lot faster to the process.”
And the punishment for not complying with the rules is swift and certain: dismissal from the program, a trial appearance and possibly conviction and imprisonment.
Sometimes just the fact that there are other former vets going through the experience is therapeutic.
“There’s a strong sense of camaraderie,” said Deutsch.
Each court handles an average 40 veterans, Deutsch said.
So far, however, national data to measure the success of the courts in reducing recidivism are unavailable—partly because the program is still so new.
The Buffalo Court
The first veterans court was launched in 2008 in Buffalo, NY by Judge Robert Russell, who began noticing similar symptoms among former military personnel who appeared in his courtroom.
“Some might have trouble sleeping (and) some might be reliving mentally some of their experiences of having served in a war zone—not necessarily knowing, without professional intervention, how to deal with what they’ve experienced,” says Russell,
“Or they think their problems will go away and that their experience is typical ”
Editors Note: Judge Russell described his work on the Buffalo Court during the 2011 John Jay/Harry Frank Guggenheim Symposium on Crime in America. For a podcast of his panel, please click HERE and go to podcasts for Panel #2.
Data from the Buffalo Veterans Treatment Court suggests it has been effective.
Some 98 per cent of the veterans in the program have not had further run-ins with the law. The Orange County court and Tulsa Veterans Treatment Court report success with about 80 percent of their veterans.
Deutsch predicts that, when the national numbers are in, veterans courts will show even lower recidivism rates than drug treatment courts, largely because veterans often come to court with more determination to straighten themselves out.
“These are just people who, in most cases, are drinking a lot or abusing prescription because they can’t sleep at night. If you can help them sleep at night, maybe they can be OK,” he said.
Russell says he and other judges in veteran courts try to answer a simple set of questions: “How can we best address the [issues of] vets we see? How can we design a model that can afford them the best opportunity of getting stability back in their lives, addressing their health care?”
In addition to their struggles with drugs and alcohol, homelessness and joblessness—as high as 70 percent among Buffalo court veterans—were big problems, Russell said.
According to Deutsch, the target population includes not only recent veterans, but those who have served as far back as the Korean and Vietnam Wars. And it is not limited to males, given the increasing number of women serving in combat and grappling with their own problems.
“We’re seeing some women who come into these programs and for whom military sexual trauma was the event that triggered some issues,” Deutsch said.
The federally funded Veterans Treatment Court Planning Initiative conducts five-day training sessions for veterans court professionals and veteran volunteers in municipalities who request them.
At its December conference, the drug court association drew 1,000 attendees for a first-ever special session for those involved or aiming to be involved in veterans treatment courts. During the conference, it swore in 80 veterans—roughly 80 percent were men—for a first-ever Mentors Corps boot camp.
While there is considerable public empathy for helping veterans who have gotten in trouble with the law, veterans courts are still an “uphill sell,” admitted Deutsch.
“We are looking at veterans who are dealing with [alleged] crimes.”
He continued: “But it’s clear that our [present] system is not working. We cannot continue locking up [veterans and other low-level criminals] for long sentences. We know treatment works.”
Katti Gray is a contributing editor at The Crime Report and coordinator of the 2013 John Jay Center on Media, Crime and Justice/Langeloth Foundation Health Behind Bars Journalism Fellowship Program. She welcomes comments from readers.