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Orange County veterans court dispenses a different kind of justice

By Diane Curtis
Staff Writer

Wendy LindleyJudge Wendy Lindley is having none of it. “I don’t want to hear it,” the Orange County Superior Court jurist tells the young combat veteran who tries to argue that he tested “dirty” — positive — for drugs that week because he was taking a prescribed pill. “That’s virtually impossible,” Lindley replies. “Turn around. Look in the courtroom. They (veterans in the gallery) have all come back and tested negative.” She orders the bailiff to take the young man into custody.

The exchange stands out in Lindley’s Veterans Court because it is so clearly the exception. The inviting courtroom located in a former Buffum’s Department Store in downtown Santa Ana is more often the location for big smiles, applause and words of praise: “I’m so proud of you.” “You’ve worked so hard to change your life.” “Terrific work!” “Let’s give him a hand!” But when someone breaks the rules, Lindley holds him accountable. The young man must go back to jail until a bed becomes available in a Veterans Affairs inpatient residence. He may continue in the program, but he has just ensured that his graduation date (and dismissal of charges) will be delayed even if he successfully completes the program.

“I tried that same excuse,” says another veteran in the courtroom. “It just doesn’t wash.”

There are three Veterans Courts in California — one in Santa Clara County, one in San Bernardino County and the one in Santa Ana. The mission of the Orange County Veterans Court is to provide an interagency, collaborative, nonadversarial treatment strategy for combat veterans in the criminal justice system. Veterans who qualify for the 18-month program must have committed an offense as a result of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Traumatic Brain Injury (T.B.I), substance abuse or a psychological problem stemming from combat service.

Misdemeanor and felony cases are considered as long as the treatment team, which consists of the judge, a Veterans Affairs caseworker, a deputy district attorney, deputy public defender, probation officer and the Veterans Court program coordinator, agree that the veteran could do well in the program and that the public would be protected. While most veterans are accepted through consensus, Judge Lindley has final say. Sex crimes are not considered. “We think of cases as person-driven, not case-driven,” says Lindley. Noting that some veterans who have been arrested for violence are allowed into the program, she notes, “If we don’t address that, nobody’s ever going to.” The veterans must have pleaded guilty to get into the program. In most cases, once the program is completed, charges are dismissed.

Shahab Mirzaeian, a 27-year-old Navy veteran who served in the Middle East, is in phase three of the four-phase Veterans Court program, which means he has completed the minimum 30-day orientation phase, the minimum 90-day treatment plan development phase, the minimum 90-day ongoing treatment phase and the minimum 145-day stabilizing/mentoring phase. The last phase is transition to graduation. Those phases include regular but random drug and alcohol testing, no unexcused absences, education, regular court appearances, creation of a life plan, compliance with probation and VA treatment recommendations and written reports on progress.

Mirzaeian says he suffered from major depression and coped by abusing alcohol and drugs (“anything that didn’t consist of a needle”). He ended up in jail for DUIs and drug arrests. He’d tried rehabilitation programs before, he said, but none of them had the structure of the Veterans Court. “This is a fabulous program,” he says.

Brian, a 29-year-old Marine veteran, concurs. “I’ve got people pushing for me to improve my life situation, not just my legal situation,” he says. When he came back from Iraq, “I just started drinking like a fish — self-medicating.” He, too, was arrested for DUIs and drug possession. “Going to jail you don’t learn anything except how to be a better criminal.” In the regular therapy and group work with fellow veterans, he learns how to cope without alcohol or drugs.

The Veterans Court “saved my life,” beams one Vietnam veteran who says 40 years of nightmares, anxiety, isolation, drinking, drugs and arrests didn’t translate into a treatable disease — PTSD — for him until he heard about the Veterans Court program. “I just thought it was me.” He never recovered, he now realizes, from seeing his entire boat crew get blown up and die in Vietnam. “Something clicked in my brain that turned me into survival mode” from that day. And it didn’t help that when he returned to the United States, “people spit on me and called me a baby killer.”

In the courtroom, it’s obvious from the high fives, conversations and smiles before court is in session that the camaraderie and similarity of experiences of others — even if they are more than half his age and even if his experiences occurred 40 years earlier — is an important part of the program for him.

Most of the 20 or so veterans in Lindley’s court on a mild, February afternoon are not older Vietnam-era servicemen but veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars — fresh-faced young men who, Lindley says, may have had three tours of duty by the age of 23. Their crimes run the gamut — vandalism, DUIs, evading a police officer, domestic violence.

One young man who was arrested for assault on his wife reads from a paper he wrote on the program in seeking to be moved from Phase One to Phase Two. “The meetings have helped me cope with my fear of people … I’ve developed friendships with others who are taking this journey … Life is just so much better … I have my family back … None of this would be possible without the cooperation of the Veterans Court staff.”

He praises his Veterans Affairs outreach worker for “teaching me to trust,” his probation officer for letting him talk about his problems. He then asks to be promoted to Phase Two.

“This is so well-deserved,” Lindley tells him. “You have changed and matured so much. It’s really a pleasure for us to be a part of this journey you’re on.” Lindley tells him he’s promoted and can come once a month, not twice a month, to court, a change he doesn’t welcome and asks to continue coming twice a month. “I enjoy it. It gives me something to look forward to.”

Laura Morlin, collaborative courts coordinator for the Veterans and Homeless Courts, says it takes some time to build trust with the young veterans and to get them to share feelings. For one thing, when they have their exit interviews from the service and are asked if they suffer symptoms of PTSD, few answer in the affirmative. “They just want to go home, have a beer, be with their girlfriend or wife,” says Morlin. She says they almost have to “be deprogrammed” to realize it’s safe for them to share their anxieties and fears and emotional results of their deployments.

But once “they buy into the program,” build trust and see that there is a relationship between their crime and PTSD, they’re some of the best collaborative court participants because they’re so disciplined and good at taking instruction.

“The families thank us for giving their sons back.”