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Judges see more cases that involve veterans

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For a little more than a year, Grant Superior Judge Mark Spitzer has presided over his local drug court and has witnessed what he describes as remarkable results from the problem-solving court model.

But even with that success, the judge recognizes there's a need that isn't being met.

An increasing number of soldiers returning from the Afghanistan and Iraq wars are coming to court with a special set of problems, and Judge Spitzer wants to embrace a concept that's gaining steam throughout the country and is being considered by the Indiana General Assembly.

He's interested in the concept of veterans courts, which would operate much in the same way the state's drug, re-entry, and mental-health courts currently do, and pending expand the statutory framework to include the veterans court option.

"We're only going to see more and more of this as veterans come back from being deployed oversees and get tangled up in the criminal justice system," Judge Spitzer said. "Their issues are different from what you'd see on a regular drug and court docket or in a regular courtroom, and so we need to be in a position to address the issues that are causing this to happen."

Growing trend

About two million men and women have been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan in the past decade. While there are no comprehensive statistics about how often veterans get into trouble with the law, the criminal justice system is being blanketed with veteran-specific issues more often. Psychiatrists and law enforcement officials agree that the traumas of combat can lead to addiction and criminality, and that's fueling the push for more specialized courts.

The first full-fledged specialty court like this came in New York in January 2008 when Buffalo City Judge Robert Russell opened a court aimed at keeping veterans who are nonviolent offenders out of jail. His program pairs veterans guilty of nonviolent felony or misdemeanor offenses with volunteer veteran mentors, requiring them to adhere to a strict schedule of rehabilitation programs and court appearances.

That judge's idea has since inspired about a dozen other communities nationwide to set up similar courts, which in turn prompted several states to pass or consider laws aimed at encouraging the creation of veterans courts. Congress is also considering legislation that would set up federal funding for these courts, as long as certain standards are met.

Indiana's interest

At the moment, Indiana has about 35 drug and re-entry courts that have a statutory framework and certification process, according to the Indiana Judicial Center. Indiana is unique because it certifies its state statute-established problemsolving courts, while other jurisdictions have standards but aren't implementing a certification process. To get certified, an interested court must go through a review process with the Indiana Judicial Center. The judge, court coordinator, and staff are interviewed, and then the state will determine if the applicant meets the requirements set out in Indiana Code §12-23-14.5. Facilities, personnel, fiscal and general management, and courtroom observation are all part of the process.

That's what the state is working to expand.

House Bill 1271 would not only add veterans courts to the mix but also allow for statutory teeth involving courts focused on domestic violence, family drug dependency, and local community issues, as well as any other areas the Indiana Judicial Center might later determine is necessary. Similar legislation proposed in 2009 failed, but this time it's passed the midway point of the legislative process. The full House voted unanimously to send it on, and the Senate Judiciary Committee was set to discuss the bill Feb. 17.

That's good news for jurists, attorneys, and veterans affairs advocates throughout the state who want to set up their own problem-solving courts to address these issues.

For Judge Spitzer in Grant County, he hopes the legislation allows him to create a separate court docket for veterans who are now merged into the drug court he's run since October 2008. Presiding over that court, the judge began noticing veterans appearing on his docket and more frequently saw post-traumatic stress or service-connected issues arise.

As a result, he began discussing options to address those litigants' issues with officials at the Veterans Administration Northern Indiana Health Care System - Marion campus; the court officially partnered with the hospital in May 2009. The hospital director sits in on the drug-court staffing meetings every Thursday to offer updates about what services have been offered and are available to veterans. Through the partnership, Judge Spitzer's court is able to hook litigants up with veteran benefits resources and vocational rehabilitation if needed. When someone first enters the local system, they are asked about any service history as a way to screen those who might be in need of those services, Judge Spitzer said.

"A lot of people just hadn't realized they had access to those services as veterans, and maybe that connection can keep them out of the criminal justice system down the road," he said.

Judge Spitzer hopes that attorneys will also more carefully screen clients, determining at the onset if they have any military service history and possibly using that to find a way to best assist someone.

Marion Superior Judge Jose Salinas is also interested in the idea, as his drug and re-entry court programs currently have about four people who have been weaved into that process. That court works with the Richard L. Roudebush VA Medical Center in Indianapolis to offer much of the same resources to litigant veterans that are available in Grant County. With the pending legislation, his court would be able to start a new docket specifically devoted to those cases, according to program coordinator Jeff Yanis. Case managers would likely be brought on if the funding was available, and having the statutory framework makes federal grant money more possible, he said.

In Porter County, Superior Judge Julia Jent is spearheading a local effort to establish a veterans court and is already working to setup that structure. That program is in its infancy but is growing stronger, said deputy prosecutor Adam Burroughs, who is assigned to the drug court and working on this initiative.

A VA services officer has started working in that county courthouse in the past year, and that person is now working with the court to weave veterans' issues into the drug court in which Judge Jent presides.

"We have a heavy population of young veterans here, and the things we're seeing once they return is quite disturbing," Burroughs said. "We're seeing men and women come back from deployment with these alcohol and drug issues that never would have allowed them to get into any form of public service before. They didn't leave us behaving this way, so something happened there.

"Hopefully, we can find out what's happening and find a way to help them before it's too late. We don't want to lose them in the public or private sector, or to prisons. ... We can save these people who've served their country. We owe them that."

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