Court gives former soldiers choice of rehab over jail

Veterans court aims to help vets who have trouble adjusting to civilian life

Posted: Monday, August 09, 2004

ANCHORAGE - Martin Padilla's drinking started getting him in trouble about five years ago. Now, he says, it's spun out of control.

The 51-year-old Vietnam veteran has had so many run-ins with the law that he's become "the type of guy who gets drunk and waits for the police to come," he said.

This time around, Padilla was arrested for assault when he resisted the security guards who were trying to kick him out of a recent military air show in Anchorage.

Now he's fed up.

"This is not how I am. I can't fight it by myself," Padilla said. "I'm tired of being stupid."

Last Tuesday, the squat, powerfully built Padilla squeezed himself into his best Sunday suit and attended a hearing with six other former soldiers at the new veterans court in downtown Anchorage. The court, created last month and one of just a handful in the United States, allows veterans like Padilla to forego jail time for misdemeanor crimes and enter Veterans Affairs treatment and rehabilitation programs instead.

Padilla, whose hearing Tuesday was pushed back two weeks because his attorney did not have his case file, said afterward that he was willing to try the program, although he had his doubts.

"I think for myself it could be one of the best things that could happen to me. It could be one of the worst things, too. It is the VA. It is the federal government," he said.

The veterans court is a one-year pilot program of the Anchorage District Court. It is meant to help veterans who have had trouble adjusting to civilian life, especially those suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome, said Anchorage District Judge Sig Murphy, one of the creators of the court.

The rehab-instead-of-jail approach could prevent former soldiers who are arrested for relatively minor offenses, such as public drunkenness and petty theft, from getting caught in the legal system's revolving door and committing more serious crimes later, he said.

"These are men and women who put their life on the line over and over again in combat to protect the freedoms and liberties the rest of us enjoy," said Murphy, himself a veteran. "While the majority of them can re-enter civilian life with little difficulty, there is a fairly significant population that does have difficulty."

The program is running without funding. Murphy and fellow judge Jack Smith volunteered to take on the extra caseload, and the rehabilitation programs are already available through the VA.

The participants have to be identified as veterans under federal guidelines and they must undergo a psycho-social assessment by the VA.

If they qualify, and the prosecutor agrees, the defendant pleads guilty or no contest to his offense. His sentence is suspended while he enters an intensive mental health, substance abuse or other program tailored to his needs. Housing assistance through the VA also is available to homeless veterans.

The veterans can opt out of the program, but they face their original jail sentence if they do.

"It's not for all veterans because you have to be ready for rehabilitation," said Alex Spector, director of the VA's Alaska health care system. "Some veterans in these situations are not ready to accept that. They're still in denial, in strong post-traumatic stress situations or have long-term mental health problems."

Warren Greer, a 49-year-old Anchorage man who served in the Air Force from 1969-1971, is one of the reluctant veterans. He came to veterans court planning to enroll in the program. But he said he changed his mind and would wait instead until the Anchorage District Court decided his sentence on a trespassing charge.

Greer said he would enter the court program if the regular court sentenced him to jail.

"If it comes to that, I'll go through with it," he said. But, he said, he was reluctant to enter the intense rehabilitation program because "any kind of change makes me uncomfortable."

Greer's attorney, John Richard, works for Gorton & Logue, a law firm contracted by the city to represent indigent defendants. Richard met his clients for the first time at Tuesday's hearing, calling their names from a stack of folders in his hand and asking, "What do you want to get out of veterans court?"

He gave one veteran the options. The man faced a suspended sentence and community service in District Court or, possibly, a year and a half of treatment in veterans court. Richard advised him to take the former because it would be easier to complete.

Afterward, Richard said the veterans court was needed, but the treatment option depended on the individual.

"When we advise a client, we tell them what the options are and they will make a decision. Some will not face much time," Richard said.

A similar program in Washington state's King County, upon which much of the Anchorage program is based, has shown dramatic decreases in recidivism rates in the eight years it's been in operation, Murphy said. There is another veterans court in San Diego.

Murphy said if the Anchorage program is successful, he expects to see the number of repeat offenders drop by as much as half among those who go through the court.

The court has been convened twice since it began in July. Smith said he expects the court to hear between 500 and 1,000 cases this year. Posters have been put up in jail booking areas and word of the court is spreading among veterans, he said.

Murphy, Smith and Spector say the court was not created to make veterans a special class operating under a separate court system, but because the VA programs are already in place and the court could operate without funding.

"I think the driving factor was we had resources available, and it didn't require anybody to go ask for funding," Smith said.

Alaska has one of the highest veteran population rates in the country. There were 71,500 veterans in the state in 2000, the latest number available, or about 17.1 percent of the population, according to VA spokeswoman Marcia Hoffman-Devoe.

Murphy said after a year, the judges, VA officials and city officials will determine whether the pilot program was a success. If it is, Murphy said, he hopes to expand the court to hear cases from across the state and nonviolent felony cases.

He said the court is needed as the number of court rehabilitation programs have decreased.

"We have had unfortunately a society that has decided through elected officials to decrease the number of rehabilitative systems to anybody charged with a crime," Murphy said. "We have seen a complete erosion of the rehab programs available to the average citizen."

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