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Veterans Offered Second Chance In Sacramento Courts

Bob Moffitt / Capital Public Radio

Bob Moffitt / Capital Public Radio

A new section of the  Sacramento County Superior Court system has been working to treat the effects of war and military service.  It's called Veterans' Treatment Court.

Everyone in court works under the same belief -veterans who commit a crime are likely not bad people, but are exhibiting symptoms of the effects of military service.

Judge David Abbott presides.

"If you are accepted into Veterans' Treatment Court, you must abide by the rules of Veterans' Treatment Court, which means following all the orders of the court, your probation officer, and Veterans' Affairs," says Abott. "If you do that, then you in turn will get treatment and you will get help with the issues that led you here."

Once defendants plead guilty or no contest to criminal charges, they become participants in their own rehabilitation.

Participants must have suffered brain injury, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, sexual trauma, substance abuse, or mental health problems connected to their military service. If they successfully complete the program, they may appeal to have their records expunged.

Deputy District Attorney Chris Carlson organized the people and resources to make the court possible. He says this court model is more about rehabilitation than punishment.

"The rise of the collaborative courts -we have mental-health court, re-entry court, veterans' court- we're now trying to help people and give them the tools to improve their lives. Whereas before, basically, we prosecuted them, sent them to jail, sent them to prison, put them on probation.

Darrell Sherman served four years in the Marines and was awarded a Purple Heart for injuries suffered in Iraq.  

Two years after being discharged from the military, he was charged in Sacramento Superior court with felony assault. Normally, he'd be in jail, but Veterans' Treatment Court gave him an option. He says the support system established by the program has provided a therapist, classes, a medication counselor, and the feeling he's not alone dealing with PTSD.

"It's like a little community, they gravitate toward you, I know someone in this program and I can defer you here and I know this guy," says Sherman. "'Here's their phone number. Here's my card.' So, it's very, very helpful. Everyone seems caring I guess.  You know because they want to see you succeed.  It's...it's inspiring.  It makes me feel good, like well not only my immediate family and friends care, but now I have this whole veteran's court community as support, you know, offering, like, open arms."

Veterans who have committed the most serious felonies are not eligible for the program. A dozen veterans like Sherman have qualified so far this year.  

Sherman expects to graduate from Veterans' Court in the spring -- about the same time he graduates from Sacramento State with a degree in social work. He is interning with the City of Sacramento finding housing for homeless women.

His defense attorney is Scott Franklin from the Public Defender's office. About a year ago the Public Defender and the District Attorney's Office began talking about ways to help veterans in trouble.  

Franklin says he sees the need in his own family. His step father is a disabled Vietnam veteran who suffers from PTSD.    

"I got involved by knowing what it is for him to go through PTSD, seeing that in some of my clients, seeing that in some of my family who are themselves service members, seeing how the ravages of war affects them," says Franklin.

Abbott was asked to preside over the court in part because of his military background. He served during Vietnam as a Marine Corps prosecutor and defense attorney.

"There just wasn't a lot of recognition of how there was a relationship of criminality and that experience," says Abbott. "Fast forward 25 years or more to when I got the opportunity to be involved with this program, I saw a real chance to finally effectively address that."

Abbott displays his dog tags when he's on the bench. He says a couple of the veterans in the program also served during Vietnam, but most have served in the last 20 years in the Middle East.

Jeff Galatioto served four tours in Iraq as a Marine. He is now in veteran's court and family court after pleading to a charge of child neglect. As he tries to unify his family, he receives treatment from a neurologist for the effects of a brain injury and PTSD. He takes classes through the VA.

"The classes are amazing," says Galatioto. "The classes thus far have taught me how to manage my stress and how to manage my triggers. Dump Trucks tend to be triggers for me because they remind me of the trucks that we had in the Middle East that...they were used by suicide bombers and vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices."

Galatioto also relies heavily on a mentor, who must also be a veteran. Paul Richardson has helped Galatioto with everything from court hearings to veterans' services. Richardson says helping someone else helps him with his own PTSD.

"I like doing this. Jeffrey's a good guy. He had some problems with the law. But, he deserves a fair shake. He deserves...you know...he deserves to be successful."

Kevin Spease volunteered through his American Legion Hall post. He says society owes veterans a debt for their service, especially if that service damages them. His mentee is taking classes to deal with severe anxiety. Spease says he's doing well.

"He's doing really good. He's grateful for the opportunity. He's attending his classes. His outlook on life is a lot brighter and he's doing spectacular."

When Spease is asked how that makes him feel, "It makes me feel great. It really does."

His eyes then get a little full and he pauses before continuing,

"Sometimes, people just need another try and they need to get the help that will get them moving in the right direction. With this program, we're able to get the VA to do what they're supposed to do, then to focus the veteran on what they need to do."

A 2008 study found more than half of charges filed against veterans involved drugs, alcohol, or assault.

Franklin says when veterans returned from the Vietnam War, they were "criminalized for substance abuse and war fatigue" caused by their service. Many became homeless or became a drag on society. He says he doesn't want to see history repeat itself.

"These guys that  are coming back from this war, from Iraq and Afghanistan? This war is just like that war. The rates of PTSD, the rates of alcohol and drug abuse are as high as they were in Vietnam if not higher. Because of the multiple deployments, the fatigue that they get when they don't have the ability to be rotated, and they come back... not the way they went."

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation says the recidivism rate for felons released from prison is 61 percent. Recidivism for Veterans' Courts participants around the country vary, but are less than 15 percent.