RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Judges and police across the country are beginning to reckon with a large number of veterans entering the criminal justice system. Many states are setting up special courts that offer veterans treatment instead of jail time. Some states have wings in prisons where veterans can live in a military style.

But these solutions mostly help veterans who broke the law after receiving an honorable discharge from the military. Vets who commit a crime before they're discharged can wind up paying a much bigger price. NPR's Quil Lawrence continues our series Other Than Honorable.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: It's a bit like showing up for formation.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Blowing whistle) Shirts tucked in, no head gear.

LAWRENCE: All these men are veterans. They only wish this was a barracks.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Coming down...

LAWRENCE: In the veterans wing of Indian Creek Correctional Center in Virginia, the men stand next to their bunks. It looks like a barracks, but the uniform is denim. And there's a headcount, like this, five times a day.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Twenty - 16...

LAWRENCE: Prisons in a few states across the country have some sort of veterans dormitory. The idea is to take advantage of veterans' shared experiences, to help them work on the issues that landed them here.

CHRIS: I was the only that didn't know I was messed up when I came home.

LAWRENCE: Chris served in the Marines for nine years, including Iraq and Afghanistan. He asked to go by only one name because of the stigma of being a convict. He says the war followed him home to Virginia.

CHRIS: There's always the memory. You don't forget any of it. And then the physical emotions and the feelings that are behind all of it, feelings around that know that you took somebody's life. The rush of fear - you know, my movie never stops. There's no ending and credits. It just continues to go on and on and on.

LAWRENCE: Chris led men in the second battle of Fallujah. Pride fills his voice when he talks about that. He can't fathom how he went from there to here, a state prison. Chris got home from Iraq, and got three DUIs in three months. He says there were even more times that the cops let him off because of his military ID. The fourth DUI got Chris four and a half years. Being with other vets in this dormitory has made it bearable.

CHRIS: I'm glad I was in here because there's a few other gentlemen, one that was actually in Fallujah with me. It was easy to adapt with other guys who have experienced what I've experienced.

LAWRENCE: At least in this wing people don't steal stuff, he says, and you can let your guard down a little. A large numbers of veterans have run-ins with the law. There are an estimated 700,000 in the correction system.

GAIL PAMUKOV-MILLER: The types of problems that are bringing people into the court - PTSD, chronic pain, substance abuse.

LAWRENCE: Gail Pamukov-Miller, a Michigan attorney, works with a veterans treatment court. There are at least 130 across the country that offer veterans supervised treatment instead of jail time.

PAMUKOV-MILLER: It's a non-adversarial, treatment-based approach. The job is to really provide continual education, support, in how to stay on track in the program.

LAWRENCE: Last month, Miller attended the first graduation ceremony at the Macomb Country vets court, north of Detroit.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

LAWRENCE: One after another, graduates thanked the court for turning them around - like Frank Hubbard, an Iraq vet.

FRANK HUBBARD: My life has made a 180. I went from an unemployed, angry veteran who would get a job, get mad, beat somebody up. It was a revolving door.

LAWRENCE: Hubbard had come home from combat and started treating his PTSD by drinking heavily. Things were bad with his ex and one night, he showed up at her house. She called the cops, and they found out he was carrying a gun.

HUBBARD: I was facing a five-year prison sentence, and then one day Judge Jordan contacted me.

LAWRENCE: That's Judge David Jordan. He got Hubbard into vets' treatment court. Instead of jail time, Hubbard got three years of probation and therapy, with weekly tests for drug use. He should come out with a nearly clean record. Hubbard says the Army taught him to survive war but not civilian life or PTSD, which he says can feel like drowning in your worst memories.

HUBBARD: Veterans treatment court, you have helped me learn how to swim; and for that I thank you. and I'll be forever indebted to you.

(APPLAUSE)

LAWRENCE: Judge Jordan admits the courts give veterans special treatment, but he's OK with that.

JUDGE DAVID JORDAN: Other people, No. 1, haven't done what they did to earn our positive consideration and No. 2, other people don't have access to the VA benefits that at least a lot of these guys do.

LAWRENCE: Now, that last point is important. Jordan says judges are setting up vets courts because they should, but also because they can. VA benefits can fund all the treatment that the courts order, so these courts cost very little to the communities that start them. The VA doesn't pay for treatment of vets with a less than honorable discharge.

There's another important point - when the crime is committed: while you're still in the military, or once you're out. Tom White runs a veterans legal clinic in Chicago. He's an Iraq vet and has taught law at West Point. He says if you go to war, come home, get out with an honorable discharge and then get in trouble, plenty of resources are available.

TOM WHITE: On the other hand, an individual who is not out of the military - maybe a month before they get out, and they get a DUI; and the command come down on you like a ton of bricks. Justice is typically served cold and hard.

LAWRENCE: White says that distinction of when the crime is committed, can seem arbitrary. That might be why it's starting to get some attention. The first national conference of veterans' treatment courts was held last week in Washington. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Gen. Martin Dempsey, was among the speakers.

(APPLAUSE)

GEN. MARTIN DEMPSEY: Thanks very much. It's I that should be giving you a standing ovation, but...

LAWRENCE: Dempsey talked about the issue of soldier re-entering society. The very first question from the audience was about vets with other than honorable discharges.

JUDGE CHARLES PATTON: Gen. Dempsey, my name is Charles Patton. I'm a judge in Cleveland, Ohio.

LAWRENCE: Judge Charles Patton runs the vets court there.

PATTON: Many occasions, I've had veterans come to court. They've served 10 or more years, and got a discharge other than honorable. What can we do to kind of help these guys who didn't get that honorable discharge?

DEMPSEY: It's a fascinating question, and one that I'm not at all adverse to examining. But it is a complex issue. And we all make choices in life that then we live with for the rest of our lives; and I think we have to understand that as well.

LAWRENCE: That's true, but veterans like Chris - the Marine in prison, in Virginia - wonder if every crime should carry a life sentence.

CHRIS: I don't want this anymore in my life. I want to come full circle, and I want to eventually come fully home from my war and, you know, live a normal, productive life.

LAWRENCE: Chris came very close to getting a bad discharge himself. If his trial for the DUI had taken place just a few weeks earlier, he would have still been in the Marines. He could have lost all his benefits. He says veterans' lives shouldn't turn on luck like that, or on the mistakes a young man makes when he's just home from war.

LAWRENCE: Quil Lawrence, NPR News.

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