The 4th Judicial District is creating a special court for war veterans who commit nonviolent crimes.
It’s intended to give them an added opportunity for treatment instead of punishment.
But not everyone thinks that’s a good idea.
The district attorney’s office unveiled plans for the court during a press conference yesterday, but a pilot program has been under way for weeks. About 10 veterans have gone through the court so far.
“It’s less about punishment, and more about getting them the help they need,” said Rich Lindsey, peer navigator at Pikes Peak Behavioral Health Group and a member of the veterans’ court steering committee. “It’s about making them whole again after the war.”
Soldiers who are charged with a lower-level felony in the 4th Judicial District, who experienced trauma related to military service and have been diagnosed with a trauma spectrum disorder and who want to actively participate in treatment are eligible for the court.
The veterans’ court gathers information about soldiers who have committed crimes and determines who should be eligible for the court.
Veterans who used a weapon for crime or commit a crime that involves serious violence are not eligible The court also considers statements from people close to the veteran about what they were like before their war experience – and what they are like now.
“Many of these returning veterans have psychological problems,” Lindsey said. “These problems are a direct result of their combat experience.”
He said they have had some domestic violence cases go through the court – but only cases that don’t have serious injuries.
The court stops veterans from having a local conviction and will assist them in maintaining their military careers and get them treatment for psychological issues.
El Paso County’s court is modeled after one in Buffalo, New York, the first of its kind in the country established two years ago, and since then, similar courts have been created in other cities.
The courts were created as a response to the waves of veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan committing crimes. But advocates of the courts nationwide say they address a problem as old as combat itself.
Most of the veterans’ courts are modeled on drug courts that allow defendants to avoid prison in exchange for stricter monitoring.
Alaska, California, Nevada and Oklahoma have such courts. The Nevada plan requires veterans to successfully complete a treatment program. Once that’s finished, their criminal records are sealed.
In other states, both the American Civil Liberties Union and domestic violence groups have complained that the courts give special treatment to soldiers guilty of crimes they should be punished for.
But, the Colorado chapter of the ACLU is giving active support to the court, said Loring Wirbel, co-chair of the ACLU in Colorado Springs.
However, that’s not the case with TESSA, a nonprofit organization that offers safe homes, treatment and therapy to domestic violence victims.
TESSA’s executives have mixed feelings about the court.
“It’s a complex, nuanced issue,” said Executive Director Connie Brachtenbach, “We know that veterans who serve in combat have some unique, serious mental health issues as a result of that trauma. We understand and support them getting all the help they need.”
But using PTSD or traumatic brain injury as the reason for violence is wrong, she said, adding that domestic violence victims themselves are frequently diagnosed with PTSD, and they seldom resort to violence.
“I don’t believe that PTSD and any kind of brain injury can be held out as an excuse for violent behavior,” she said. “That argument doesn’t hold water.”
Brachtenbach said that TESSA wasn’t consulted or asked to participate in creation of the court.
Brachtenbach also feels spurned that the district has not created a family court, something she’s been working on for years.
“We’ve been told it would take moving mountains, it could never happen,” she said. “It was too complicated. But this court – and the money for it – seemed to appear without even the input from people in the community who might have a stake in the outcome.”
Local Army officials are glad the court has been created.
“Fort Carson enjoys a great relationship with the Colorado Springs community,” Lt. Col. Steve Wollman, 4th Infantry Division Public Affairs Officer, said in an e-mail statement. “We have strong working relationships with the local law enforcement community … The establishment of the El Paso County Veterans Court is another example of this community’s commitment.”
News reports say that of more than 100 veterans who have gone through the Buffalo court, only two had to be returned to the regular criminal court system – a lower recidivism rate than in drug courts.
Lindsey said the creation of the court is a subject that’s close to his heart.
“I got involved because I am a veteran, and because of the work I do with Pikes Peak Behavioral Health Group,” he said. “I already help veterans and their families navigate the civilian systems that they need when a soldier returns from war. I’ve been in Colorado Springs for 10 years, so I am very familiar with the courts and other systems out there.”