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.

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