Veterans accused of crimes often share similar trauma from their time in the service.
Post-traumatic stress disorder. Military sexual assault. Brain injuries.
Special courts are gaining traction nationwide to help these veterans avoid being repeatedly arrested by combining treatment with accountability.
That’s why Benton Country, Washington, prosecutor Andy Miller and a team of court officials and veterans advocates plan to ask county commissioners to tap a public safety fund to recreate Spokane County’s Veterans Treatment Court in Benton and possibly Franklin counties.
The courts — which take up nonviolent misdemeanor cases — work like other treatment-based courts used in Benton and Franklin counties by focusing on specific types of offenders with common issues.
The approach could help military veterans avoid losing their families and jobs if they’re charged. The Benton County jail already handles about 40 veterans a week, and the U.S. Veterans Administration reports about 3,000 homeless veterans in the Mid-Columbia.
Advocates say they build community among veterans and help them tackle issues unique among those who have served.
Eric Andrews, a civil deputy in Miller’s office, says the special courts are needed and they work. He’s an 11-year Navy veteran who previously worked in the Spokane program.
In that model, current and former military service personnel charged with crimes such as drunk driving, domestic violence, and petty theft are eligible to have their cases diverted to the veterans court.
The court can require defendants to participate in veteran-oriented treatment programs and comply with other orders. Cases would be heard by District Court Judge Dan Kathren.
However, it would focus on the root causes of veteran crime, such as PTSD, sexual assault, brain injuries and other issues.
Spokane marries its judicial system with a unique nonprofit called the Spokane Veterans Forum. The forum is a community of veterans that provides mentors and friendship to veterans charged with crimes.
The Benton County model will include a similar approach. Franklin County Prosecutor Shawn Sant and Pasco city prosecutor Jim Bell have participated in the work sessions, signaling possible interest on the north side of the Columbia River.
Miller wants to tap the $14 million to $16 million Benton County has banked thanks to a 2014 voter-approved public safety sales tax intended to support law enforcement, courts, and crime-fighting initiatives.
The 0.3 percent sales tax supports 35 law enforcement officers, mental and drug courts, and other activities.
The county commission is soliciting proposals from county agencies with a public safety focus and, separately, from outside nonprofits that run gang and crime prevention programs.
April 20 is the application deadline for nonprofits.
Money won’t be available until 2019.
Treating veterans with respect while requiring treatment works, said Jerry Gutman, who oversees mentor programs in Spokane. The recidivism rate for veterans court defendants fell to between 12 percent and 14 percent in the past three years.
“What is making this happen is veteran-to-veteran connections,” he said.
Andrews said it’s common to see defendants from Spokane’s court return as mentors and to give back to the community, much the way they served their country.
“You just see what an impact this has on people’s lives, to make them whole again,” Andrews said. “I can’t think of a better way to repay a service member for what our country has asked us to do.”
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