Engage the Enemy

A new Cleveland court helps veteran offenders shake their demons

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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.

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