Engage the Enemy

A new Cleveland court helps veteran offenders shake their demons

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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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