Santa Paula Times

Unique program: Veterans Court seeks to help those who served

November 18, 2011
Santa Paula News

The Ventura Superior Court is celebrating the anniversary and expansion of an important program, Veterans Court.

The program began hearing cases involving military veterans on a pilot basis in November 2010, and continues to look for mentors to receive training to help those who served.

The court is conducted under the direction of Judge Colleen Toy White, whose experience with domestic violence court and mental health court makes her uniquely suited to spearhead this program. Said White, “We are proud to participate in this effort to hold veterans who have honorably served their country accountable for their crimes, while offering an opportunity for those who have suffered service-related psychological injuries to receive a wide range of services designed to help them succeed on probation.”

A coordinated effort of the Ventura Superior Court, Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), and the District Attorney, Public Defender, and Probation Agency, defendants eligible for this court - White said there have been about 40 so far in the program - are United States military veterans who would otherwise be sentenced to county jail or state prison and who committed a criminal offense as a result of post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, substance abuse, or psychological problem stemming from U.S. military service. A careful screening process is designed to protect the community, verify veteran status and determine amenability to treatment determines eligibility. 

The program’s guidelines are stringent; less than half of those screened since the program began one year ago have been admitted. “I am told there are 52,000 veterans that reside in Ventura County,” and White said the reason the court was started is “number 1, the law allows us to do it and it gives an option that the criminal court can provide veterans, an option for them to participate in treatment.” 

Most of those referred to the program “are their own worst enemy,” whose active duty led to post-traumatic stress syndrome and/or substance abuse issues. “They come back with these demons” that White said must be met head on. And that includes a guilty plea the charges White said often are centered on drug possession or being under the influence of same, petty theft, public intoxication, forgery, even an occasional burglary. 

Those veterans with serious criminal histories are not eligible for the program. Those who qualify, said White, “have to take responsibility for the crime, plead guilty,” and then tackle the multi-faceted program that includes treatment, working with a mentor/advocate and regular court appearances for monitoring.   

Mentors are carefully matched to the veterans by branch of service and age. “Our mentors are properly trained and serious about being with the veteran in the long haul,” and are required to make a one-year commitment.

White said with veterans, “These problems didn’t happen in a day and there are no miracle programs out there. It can take years, and mentors are really a very strong advocate for the vet and help keep them on track so they don’t re-offend.”

White admits eliminating recidivism “is a lofty goal, especially when dealing with substance abuse,” but having a strong support system is a good step. And perhaps a lifesaving one: “The statistics on veteran suicide,” said White, “are staggering.”