Veteran’s court comes to Sacramento

Pilot program intended to steer military members out of a cycle of crime, addiction

Attendees of Sacramento County’s inaugural veterans’ treatment court gather in the hall outside of the downtown superior court’s Department 39.

Attendees of Sacramento County’s inaugural veterans’ treatment court gather in the hall outside of the downtown superior court’s Department 39.

Photo by Raheem F. Hosseini

A day before the nation’s birthday, four soldiers tested out a fledgling treatment program aimed at stemming their trauma-fueled descent into crime and addiction.

On July 3, presiding Judge David W. Abbott gaveled to order Sacramento County’s first stab at a tribunal specifically for military veterans. The pilot program plucks law-breaking veterans from the crime-and-punishment assembly line and embeds them in treatment programs that include in-patient stays and drug testing and can last up to 18 months.

Successful graduates can get their charges expunged or reduced, and jail sentences dismissed.

These propagating veterans’ courts speak to a belated recognition that crimes committed by ex-military often trace back to their service, especially in combat. “We still have a lot of Vietnam [War] vets in prison that probably wouldn’t be there if they had [veterans’ treatment court] programs,” averred Randy Smith of Stand Down Sacramento, which participates in an alternative-sentencing court for homeless veterans accused of misdemeanors.

“So we’re going to do a better job with this group,” added assistant public defender Scott Franklin of the approximately 2 million men and women returning from Afghanistan and Iraq. “We lost a generation of Vietnam soldiers. We’re not going to lose these ones.”

Many of them have already been lost, according to groups that track suicide and homelessness rates among active and former military.

That grim inheritance, from soldier to soldier and war to war, most likely dates back centuries, said Judge Abbott. “But it wasn’t until recently, probably in the last 25 to 30 years, that there was ever an institutional acknowledgment that these problems were serious, they were severe and they were real,” he said during introductory remarks.

This latest attempt at salving the turmoil in an all-volunteer force follows veterans’ courts in 18 other California counties, and many others across the nation. At more than 98,000, Sacramento has the sixth-most veterans of any county in the state, according to Franklin. About 4.7 percent of them served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

It took two years—and several law-enforcement agencies and veterans groups—to put this court together, modest as it is.

Due to budgetary constraints, the program maxes out at 20 participants. A request to fund a full-time probation officer to bump capacity to 50 participants will go before county supervisors this month. Even with its limited scope, getting veterans to self-identify at the time of arrest is a priority, said Doug Mitten of the Vietnam Veterans of America’s Sacramento Valley chapter.

Outside the courtroom last Thursday, in a corridor buzzing with nerves, Franklin gathered the inaugural class to sign their applications and probation agreements in the presence of a rounded-up notary. “All you guys are going to be my first graduates—you know that?” he assured.

Three of the four veterans were in their mid-to-late-20s, while the fourth had the clipped white hair of a man in his 50s. A fifth was in treatment on an excused absence.

Two young vets were joined by wives or girlfriends, one of whom was pregnant. Both men were here to face separate misdemeanor charges of child endangerment. Domestic crimes among returning soldiers aren’t unusual, Franklin explained. “Their problem was that they were having emotional disturbances, and the person that was there was a child or a family member, and they struck them,” he said. “The programs they’re going to be in are going to deal with the [post-traumatic stress disorder] that they have, but also work on the family relationships they need to repair.”

One vet spent a year in the U.S. Air Force before diagnoses of anxiety and depression prompted his honorable discharge in 2001. The other, a Marine, endured four combat deployments in Iraq and was discharged last year.

For pleading no contest to their charges, the young fathers were given four years of formal probation and ordered to comply with “no-strike” orders. Jail sentences of 90 and 30 days were suspended, but could be levied if they fail to complete the program or break any stipulations.

Besides completing the court program, a former Army specialist who served a 12-month tour in the Diyala Province during Operation Iraqi Freedom and was accused of misdemeanor vandalism will have to pay a restitution fine between $120 and $1,000 to have his 30-day jail sentence dismissed.

The older veteran, who had already spent 16 days in jail for assault, struck a chord of recognition with the judge, a ’70s-era Marine himself. “Those were some interesting years,” Abbott recalled of his own service.

Before he left, he reflected on that hokey courtroom ritual of opening each hearing with the pledge of allegiance. “I’d just like to say … it had been a long time since I had the opportunity to do that, and it felt good,” he said.

Upon request by Franklin, the judge continued each matter to July 17, when the soldiers will be matched with one of nine mentors seated in the jury box—men and one woman who know what it’s like to serve everything and everyone but themselves. Whether they can help these veterans turn that tide stands as the greatest test of a life during wartime.