A new Cleveland court helps veteran offenders shake their demons

Engage the Enemy 

A new Cleveland court helps veteran offenders shake their demons

The parade of men stepping up to the courtroom podium forms a kaleidoscopic snapshot of the shrapnel expelled by the U.S. military: There are tattooed twentysomethings in baggy shorts alongside geezers who wear the strain of decades-old horror. Some look dumpy, others like they're on break from their job at an insurance office, all clean-cut in dress slacks and neat short-sleeved button-downs.

Judge Jerry Ault's informal dialogue with each one strikes on similar themes: Are you working? How's the job going? Have you been seeing your counselor? What about group therapy?

Each man gets ample time to respond in snippets about the landscaping gig or the job hunt that's going nowhere, the difficulties in getting to appointments, the family crises that never end.

Bill, an older man with a graying blond ponytail, was arrested for not having a driver's license. He can't get his pension check or his license back. He admits he hasn't sought the help of the court's free lawyers.

Josh, a recently returned Iraq War veteran who looks like a hoodie-sporting crowd-surfer at a Chimaira show, landed here on a petty theft charge. He's tense and evasive when asked about going to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. They don't align with his "belief system," he says.

And so another lost soul wanders through Ault's doors, another opportunity to save a life that's drifted to the outskirts of meaninglessness. The judge presides over Mansfield's veterans court, a program that aims to treat offenders rather than simply punish them, and to connect them with the many services available to veterans in the hope that they can overcome the nearly universal drug and alcohol problems that plague them and get their lives back on track.

Mansfield launched its veterans court — the first in Ohio and among the first in the nation — in November 2009. On September 6, Judge Lynn McLaughlin Murray will preside over a new veterans court in Cleveland, the first in a major metropolitan area.

The bottom-line goal of veterans court is to slash recidivism and clear out overcrowded jails — in essence, of course, to save money. But pulling salvageable lives back from the brink of disaster also weighs heavily on the program's architects.

"I was seeing that veterans on my docket were not doing well," says Murray, a former Muni Court magistrate who was appointed to the bench in January. "I had a 58-year-old Vietnam vet on my docket. He got benefits years ago and fell off the wagon. He had DUIs and was homeless. I've had individuals with post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury.

"You combine those with the fact that these are individuals with a warrior mentality that says, 'I don't need help — I can handle this myself.'"

Murray's task is to convince them that they can't.

When your every step could land you on the bomb that shreds your body, it's little wonder that mundane tasks back home never feel quite right.

"They've been overseas two, three, four times," Murray says of the veterans she typically sees in her regular court. "They come back and things have changed. They aren't comfortable in their own skins. It's a huge problem."

It's a problem she witnessed firsthand when she worked in a homeless shelter during college. "It seemed like most of the men there were Vietnam veterans with substance-abuse problems," she says. The statistics approximate her recollection: Roughly 1 in 4 homeless Americans is a veteran, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless.

The plight of veterans — the cycle of emotional scars and battered brains that lead to substance abuse, that in turn leads to tangles with the law — caught the attention of Ohio Supreme Court Justice Evelyn Stratton three years ago. She was already an advocate of what are called "specialized dockets": courts for drug abuse, domestic violence, and mental health problems that, rather than simply meting out justice, aim to treat the underlying issues that led to the problems in the first place. She began working on mental health courts in 1999; since then their numbers in Ohio have swelled from 2 to 34.

Cleveland has had a drug court since 1998 and has "graduated" more than 1,000 offenders in that time. By the mid-2000s, the state decreed that independent research from multiple sources was proving that such courts were achieving lower recidivism rates.

At a conference in Washington, D.C., several years ago, Stratton found herself sitting next to a gentleman from the Veterans Administration who told her he was going to start a veterans court.

"I said, 'What's that?' and he said it's basically a drug or mental health court for veterans," she recalls. Immediately sold on the concept, she returned to Ohio and began spreading the word to interested courts and organizations around the state. Buffalo launched the nation's first such court in early 2008. Mansfield christened the first one in Ohio a year later. Youngstown followed at the beginning of this year, and Canton held its first session in June.

A session in veterans court barely resembles an ordinary court, in which defendants are brought in, charged, and sentenced. Here, the defendant is asked whether he would like to "plead in" — that is, to have his case handled by the veterans court.

If so, he will be assessed by the court's team of experts, and a treatment program will be put in place. The duration of each program varies based on the particulars of the case.

Loosely speaking, offenders eligible for veterans court must have been honorably discharged from the military; while exceptions can be made, the variety of services available to less-than-honorable discharges is considerably reduced.

Individual judges set the criteria for which crimes are eligible for consideration. Offenses mostly revolve around drunken driving and suspended licenses, with some drug possession, and a dash of domestic violence or breaking-and-entering sprinkled in. Felonies, such as armed robbery, are not eligible for the court.

The weeks leading up to the debut of Cleveland's veterans court are stockpiled with procedural issues and assembling the team that will support the offenders cueing up at Murray's door. The Mansfield court has ushered 65 veterans through its system in more than a year and a half of operation; Murray says she already has more qualified vets than that ready to flow into her program by day 1. (Due to privacy issues, Scene was denied access to contact information for any of the offenders currently in line for Cleveland's veterans court.)

"Our probation officer is getting referrals on a daily basis," she says.

In Murray's court, offenses will be limited to misdemeanors that carry the potential for a jail sentence. But rather than a stint in the slam, the veteran will be subject to a probationary period more demanding than a typical offender's probation. Usually there are AA meetings, counseling sessions, random drug tests, and regular meeting with a probation officer. He will also be required to return to court to share a progress report at regular intervals — perhaps weekly, biweekly, or monthly, depending on the whim of the judge. Murray estimates she'll spend the first month establishing a program for her initial set of offenders.

Veterans court sessions — which will be held weekly in Cleveland, although courts with lighter case loads like Youngstown and Mansfield meet bi-weekly — consist of each offender coming before the judge in the courtroom to report on his progress and talk about additional support he may need. Once he has successfully completed his treatment program and probation, and paid any fines and costs, he "graduates" from the program. The record of his offense follows him, however.

Before meeting with veterans, Mansfield's Judge Ault gathers in an adjoining conference room with his team: a group made up of a "justice outreach coordinator" from the Veterans Administration, a representative from the local Veterans Service Commission, a drug counselor, three representatives from the volunteer service group AMVets (which serves honorably discharged veterans), and an ever-growing number of observers from neighboring counties and Cleveland, among others.

Ault's right-hand man is probation officer Fred Brubach, a tall man with a folksy drawl whose bald pate is the subject of friendly kidding. He could talk about the veterans court program all day if you'd let him.

Brubach himself isn't a veteran, but his father was in World War II and his brother served in Vietnam. He worked in probation in the 1990s, before running Mansfield's parks department. "I always wanted to come back to probation," says Brubach, who will be 62 in January. "That's where I wanted to end my career."

Brubach has a pile of files in front of him, one on each of the veterans they'll be seeing. The team reviews how each one is doing, what services he's accessed, what appointments he's made — and which ones he's kept.

About half are unemployed, and some are homeless. Brubach says those he sees coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan are usually ravaged by the drugs they lean on to numb the pain of reentry. Murray sees the same patterns among the veterans who clog her regular docket in Cleveland.

"We have so many vets who come in, they don't even know they have benefits," Brubach says. "For some of them, it's almost a blessing they got in trouble."

Josh, the young veteran who was so evasive about AA meetings, doesn't believe in God, it turns out, and is turned off by the religious slant of AA. So they discuss strategies to work around this, to get at what Josh does believe in. He suffers from severe post-traumatic stress and mood swings, and he's on a methadone treatment program — Brubach even drives him there on occasion. He's a smart kid, the probation officer insists.

"I've got one young man that was in the first wave going into Iraq. I remember watching on CNN tanks going in there. He was on one of those tanks. I'm sure he has nightmares about that. He's got substance-abuse problems. I've got a special place in my heart for him. I love what I do, and I want to make sure we give them the best we can. Sometimes it's not going to work. I understand that. But when you help someone, it gives you a good feeling."

Conventional courts face two key problems when dealing with veterans: connecting them with available services and connecting service providers with each other. The teams that make up a veteran courts are intended to do both.

"I wanted to get everybody talking to each other about what services were out there," says Justice Stratton. "The feds don't talk to the state; the state doesn't talk to the nonprofits. They all do housing, but they don't coordinate. My goal is to network these groups. Bring them together and now they can connect, knowing all these things exist."

Judge Murray's team in Cleveland resembles the one in Mansfield, incorporating the Cuyahoga County Veterans Service Commission, the VA, and a treatment coordinator, among others.

The goal is for the judge to have fingertip access to any help the veteran before her might need. And unlike the other specialized dockets, where a judge might have to scramble to find help for a drug abuser or schizophrenic in a time of budget cuts to social services, there is a wealth of services for veterans. Substance-abuse programs that are closed to civilians have spots at the ready for veterans; if underlying health problems come into play, the VA steps in to help.

"Veterans have so many services," says Tracy Walker-Askew, Murray's VA representative. Her task is to determine what services each vet is eligible for, and she finds that most have no idea on their own. "When I was applying for this job, they said, 'You'll be so pleasantly surprised working somewhere where you can actually do something.'"

The VA is most helpful in providing long-term services like medical treatment and counseling. The county veterans commission, with its dedicated stream of tax funding, provides immediate help — for instance, money for rent, food, and clothing. Cuyahoga's veterans' budget of $7.5 million is more than they manage to spend each year. The problem till now had been in getting the word out.

"We do the stuff the VA doesn't do," says Bob Schloendorn, executive director at the county Veterans Service Commission and one of Murray's team members. And, as part of a new program, they can even provide legal help: Law students at Case Western Reserve are working to guide veterans through basic legal problems, such as rent issues or getting back a suspended driver's license.

An inevitable frustration for the support team are offenders who refuse to be helped. When they decline to plead in to veterans court, they are returned to a regular courtroom. There, similar efforts may be made to help them, but most likely in a random fashion.

"Someone who has never been incarcerated will do everything they can not to be, so they'll come in," says Walker-Askew. "But you have a person who says, 'The probation regimen is more rigorous than what I want to do.' They'll say, 'It's easier to do my six months.'

"Judges always point out, 'Remember your basic training? You didn't always want to be there, but you did what you had to do.'"

Female veterans, still rare to veterans courts but appearing in increasing numbers, present unique challenges of their own. Many have been traumatized in the service by sexual assault.

"In Youngstown, they just had their first female veteran coming through," says Walker-Askew. "She experienced two incidents of sexual trauma and had medical issues, including a stroke. She does not have custody of her two children. She was the perpetrator of domestic issues, had mental health issues and drug issues. She did not want to plead into veterans court. She did not want to be there. I was disappointed. I thought we could do some things to help her get some treatment, but she wanted no part of it. She went back to regular court."

A folksy, familiar vibe permeates Mansfield's veterans court. In the pre-court meeting, a team member mentions growing up on the same street as one of the offenders. Brubach changes the time of an interview because he's driving a veteran to a meeting — the distances in this rural area and many veterans' lack of a car and/or a driver's license present a unique set of challenges.

The tenor of Cleveland's court will be far different, says Murray. Among other things, Cleveland's probation officer won't stop by to pick up offenders at their homes. But they will have some advantages Mansfield doesn't.

"Our volume is so big, we can never be on the intimate level they are," says Murray. "But we have so many more resources.

"If they can't get to an appointment because they don't have a bus pass, the Veterans Service Commission can help with that. I have had lawyers approach me about doing pro bono work if they have domestic issues or are dealing with foreclosure."

Still, Murray says, her team learned a lot from its observation of Mansfield. And she's not the only one: There is widespread enthusiasm of late for veterans courts across the state. Recently, Senator Rob Portman and a representative from Senator Sherrod Brown's office sent observers to Mansfield, as did the Franklin County (Columbus) courts, one of several counties somewhere along the path to starting its own veterans court.

"When we traveled to Mansfield and sat in on the meetings, it focused us on what we're going to be doing," says Murray, who plans to take her team to Buffalo this month before setting up shop in Cleveland. "It was so beneficial. It shows you why the whole docket works — it's looking at someone as a whole person, not a little slice or a little snapshot."

The first person to step in front of Judge Ault in a recent late-morning session is Tom, a short-haired young man in a brick-red T-shirt. He arrived here via the same route as about half of Judge Ault's veterans court cases: DUI.

"Today's the day you graduate," the judge says. "How's work going?"

"We're busy," says Tom, who's doing home-repair work with his brother.

"Going to AA?"

Tom responds that he's fitting some meetings in around his work schedule.

The judge hands Tom a certificate, extends a hand to shake, and asks if he'd like to say anything. Tom thanks the assembled team briefly before heading out the door. He's got to get back to work.

It's a scene Murray hopes to be seeing in her courtroom by sometime next year.

"What's exciting to me is you can make a difference," she says. "Every time I go out, someone gives me a card and says, 'I work with veterans, I want to be involved.' We know the recidivism rate is lower than other courts. When they graduate, they don't come back."

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