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Veterans lobby for Bremerton veterans' court
“Back then you could be out at a bar and take a swing at someone, and it was no big deal. It’s a different world now. You do that and your career is over. Can you get a job at PSNS with assault charges? No way, you’re done,” said Joel Courreges.
Courreges, a Vietnam veteran and director of the Bremerton Disabled American Veterans chapter, remembered what it was like to be a young veteran returning from combat and trying to fit back into the civilian world.
“The world looks in and sees an old man, but the man looking out is still an 18-year-old soldier,” said Tom Gilles, the chapter coordinator.
The two veterans are sensitive to the anger, difficulties, and ensuing legal nightmares that soldiers can face when returning from deployment. They feel that it is more important than ever for Bremerton to establish a veterans court to deal with these criminal issues.
“Knowing what we know now about post-traumatic stress and behavior, we have a chance to help these guys coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan. The numbers aren’t in yet. Who knows how many of them are getting into trouble and could use our help for a second chance,” said Courreges.
Jay Behrens, case manager of the Department of Veterans affairs said that post-traumatic stress disorder, common in vets, factors in crime involvement. And, the effects are not limited to those who have seen combat.
“These guys see unimaginable things even in times of peace, training accidents, military sexual crimes, amputations,” said Behrens.
Courreges is soliciting the help of Kitsap defense attorneys and superior court judges to organize the court in Bremerton.
But a veterans court will require substantial human and financial resources from the state and county.
‘REHABILITATE RATHER THAN INCARCERATE’
Veterans' court follows the spirit of problem-solving established by drug courts and seen in their results.
“These types of courts were born out of judicial frustration. The legal system is moving towards prevention, we weren’t able to prevent the first incident, but we can work to prevent the next. We’re trying to stop the revolving door of recidivism,” said Kitsap County Superior Court Judge Jay B. Roof.
Roof, who is working with Disabled American Veterans, said that many of the key players from defense attorneys to prosecutors, are taking interest in veterans' court.
When a veteran who has been charged with a crime is referred to veterans' court he will be sentenced to mandatory treatment rather than a prison sentence, if found guilty. Lapses in treatment or failure to comply will lead to immediate incarceration based on the sentencing guiltiness that would have prevailed in lieu of the special court.
Treatment for chemical dependency, mental health, and aggression is available to the group of veterans that would otherwise not likely follow through on the program without a court order.
“We have the benefit of a gavel to encourage compliance,” said Roof.
Critics of veterans court have said that a veterans' court is unfair in that it gives a ‘free pass’ to criminals just because they wore a uniform. However, Judge Roof believes that no one is getting off easy.
“These courts are not coddling criminals,” said Roof.
He explained how intense the treatment programs can be and that those who are sentenced to the minimum 18 months of treatment in drug court often do not make it all the way through. Compared to the zero to 60 day sentence of a similar crime, Roof said that veteran offenders in reality have to work twice as hard to make it through the program and save themselves from prison.
Committing a crime, doesn’t make the veteran eligible for veterans' court. Many veterans' courts in the nation do not take cases involving sexual assault or violent crimes.
Roof explained that it is still a mystery what scope of crimes a Bremerton veterans court would accept. He conjectured that the program will not likely take manslaughter cases or those crimes which would require sentencing of 20 years or more. However, the occasional bar fight or mental health issue could make it into court.
“The defense attorney will determine which cases are suitable and refer the vet to court if it makes sense,” said Roof.
Eligibility will come down to resources. Trying and rehabilitating serious crimes costs more money.
“We would need more resources, and it will be worked out by the dollars. The program would be fashioned to fit our demographic, but in the end we’ll be yanked by those strings,” said Roof.
Roof and Cherie Lusk, manager of the drug court, are strong advocates for veterans' court. But the draw on resources is clear.
Both Pierce and King counties have drawn on funding initiatives from the state to support their drug courts. However, when these fall through, or are unavailable, it falls to the local governments.
A number of defense attorneys at the superior court will be taking on veterans court cases pro bono.
The court is also planning to save money by making veterans court an adjunct of drug court so that they can share resources.
“The prosecutors’ office is going to have problems [setting up veterans court] with the cuts going on across the street. Grants [for veterans] may cover treatment but not the administration,” said Roof.
Many veterans believe that if Proposition One, veterans services levy, passes funds could be appropriated to veterans' court. But, the jury is still out on that issue.
“A lot of people will be arm wrestling over that,” said Roof.
According to Deputy Scott Wilkes of Kitsap County Sheriff's Office, the average cost to jail one person is $80.80 per day. Multiplied by 365 days, the lock-up cost for one year totals $29,492.
“Now multiply that number by the total number of inmates held in one prison and you have the costs to the county,” said Wilkes.
Disabled American Veterans believe that a veterans court is necessary from a social justice standpoint as well as potentially saving the public money. Either way, it is an issue that the Bremerton community should be conscious of with its large veteran population.
“It’s not something that goes away but comes back with every generation in a military community,” said Gillis.