Veterans Court Gives A Second Chance To Those Who Served

SHREVEPORT, LA (AP) — Courtroom B in Caddo District Court was far from packed one day last week as an experiment progressed.

         There were four men, their attorney Gernine Mailhes, a Department of Veterans Affairs representative and court staff as a rather informal hearing took place over the course of an hour.

         Caddo District Judge Craig Marcotte listened as the young men, veterans all, brought him up to speed on their lives — just another day in the area's new Veterans Treatment Court.

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         With one veteran, Marcotte's discourse ranged from stained-glass window artistry to the pros and cons of visiting estranged children. With another veteran, the questions touched on pain and the loss of a leg — not in combat, but in an accident — while with another, former sailor Daniel Olita, the talk went to physical activity.

         "You still doing the skateboarding?" Marcotte asked.

         "Yes, and I'm going to the gym some," answered Olita, 25, who served aboard the USS Ronald Reagan during his three-year hitch that was ended by a series of DWI convictions. "Doing the dumbbells and treadmills."

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         "Life's good," Marcotte said.

         But with Olita and the others, it all led to one question: How long have you been clean?

         "Coming up on ten months," said Olita, who entered drug court after pleading guilty to crack cocaine possession in 2013.

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         "I've had a drug problem since I was young," Olita, a 2007 Byrd High graduate, said just before the hearing. "I started out in high school and just progressed over the years as I tried more substances. At first the military helped — one of the reasons I joined was to get away from the people I was hanging around with. The first year-and-a-half I was in I stayed away from it, then I started running into the drugs I used to do and it picked up from there."

         After his conviction, he went on his own volition into the VA's Substance Use Disorder (SUD) inpatient program, with the drug court in view.

         "Before I went in (SUD) my probation officer told me about this program, that it would start at some point," he said. "After I finished SUD, I stayed at the Volunteers of America (transitional living facility). After that, I got my own apartment and ended up just kind of relapsing a couple of months, drinking again. I went back to treatment and came to a conclusion it was not something I could do (alone). Since then, I have done anything I can to stay sober."

         The Veterans Treatment Court helps him do that.

         "Every other week we go in front of Judge Marcotte and Miss Gernine," Olita said. "He asks us questions about how we're doing. What have we been up to? How is it going?"

         The local program is a cooperative effort by the Volunteers of America, Overton Brooks VA Medical Center and Caddo District Court, and is possible through legislation that took effect last summer authorizing the special courts, based on drug courts that have been in operation more than 14 years.

         Veterans must be referred by the VA, their probation officer or the District Attorney's office. After initial evaluation, the veteran must plead guilty to the offense and then work out his or her sentence with the court. The sentence usually will be mandatory meetings, counseling and community service, with a peer mentor assigned to help the veteran. Families are invited to be part of the process. If the veteran satisfactorily completes the yearlong program, the conviction is cleared from his or her record.

         To be in the program, a veteran must have been diagnosed of substance abuse as well as mental illness, post-traumatic stress or some other trauma. Their needs must have been determined to benefit from the program and they have to demonstrate willingness to follow through.

         Veterans can't take part if they have a history of serious or repetitive violence, were deemed incompetent to stand trial, committed a sex crime or were involved in a criminal activity in which a weapon was used.

         Nationally, drug courts have operated more than two decades, with strong support from the White House through several administrations, and with certification through the National Association of Drug Court Professionals.

         The first specific veterans court was created in 2008 by Robert Russell, presiding judge of the Buffalo Drug and Mental Health Courts, dismayed by the growing number of troubled veterans on his dockets. Within two years, he'd heard from jurisdictions around the country that wanted to model programs after his. So he partnered with the Bureau of Justice Assistance to provide training and assistance to judges and court staff around the country seeking to establish the courts.

         While drug use is a common point between the two types of courts, there are some important differences between drug and veterans court, Marcotte notes.

         "A lot of the underlying issues have to do with substance abuse," he said, noting these often coexist with addictive personality disorders, PTSD and other mental health problems. "We've got to take care of both of them. The biggest obvious difference is that all the persons in the veterans court program are veterans. They know the structure. They know the rules. They know the consequences. They're more able to adapt to someone saying 'you're going to do this or this is going to happen.'"

         In addition, he noted, veterans courts tend to see offenders who are better educated and have skills and experience their lives have engendered.

         Marcotte noted the program is rigorous but can clean the veterans' records and help reset their lives.

         "It's not short and it holds you accountable," he said. "If you make it, it's a feather in your cap because you've done a heck of a job to cross all the T's and walk the walk."

         – by AP/ Reporter John Andrew Prime with The Times

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