New Minn. Court Handles Vets Accused Of Crimes As veterans with combat-related mental health issues like PTSD get caught up in the criminal justice system, communities across the U.S. are looking for new ways to help. Minnesota is setting up a special court to make it easier for struggling veterans to get the help they need. It's also training police to recognize the signs of a veteran in crisis.
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New Minn. Court Handles Vets Accused Of Crimes

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New Minn. Court Handles Vets Accused Of Crimes

New Minn. Court Handles Vets Accused Of Crimes

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Robert Siegel. We continue our series now on how America handles its newest veterans. Today, veterans in the criminal justice system.

Many vets, often with combat-related mental health problems, run afoul of the law, and communities across the country are looking for new ways to help them. Some states are addressing the problem head on, setting up special courts for veterans and training the police who come into contact with them.

Jess Mador of Minnesota Public Radio has our story.

JESS MADOR: Ex-Marine Jonathan Wheeler's house is in Chaska, about a half-hour southwest of Minneapolis. With his two young children napping in an upstairs bedroom, the house is peaceful. But Wheeler says for him, this house is full of painful reminders of a more turbulent time.

(Soundbite of closet door opening)

The six-and-a-half-foot-tall Wheeler opens a sliding closet door he ripped out of the frame recently in a violent rage. He's not proud of it.

Mr. JONATHAN WHEELER (Former U.S. Marine): Stuff was broken everywhere. Pictures that used to be hanging here are gone because I broke them. This one here, I shattered it, broke it in front of my wife and my kids.

MADOR: Wheeler says he couldn't quiet the demons that still haunt him after his deployment to Iraq six years ago. When police pulled him over one night, they found drugs in his car, and Wheeler was thrown in jail. After endless episodes of drinking and anger, doctors diagnosed him with post-traumatic stress disorder and a possible traumatic brain injury. But it took five years before he got help.

A group of Minnesota judges hopes to make it easier for struggling veterans like Wheeler to get the help they need. This summer, they're launching a new Veterans Treatment Court in one of the state's largest counties.

Like drug or a mental health court, veterans court requires defendants to follow a strict program and uses peer mentors to help them stay the course. Judge Richard Hopper says if they do, they get the benefits and services they need and the chance to skip jail.

Judge RICHARD HOPPER: So it's a carrot-and-stick approach, which has been very, very successful in all other parts of the criminal justice system.

MADOR: At least two dozen Veterans Treatment Courts are already operating around the country. Most of these courts have a good track record of dramatically cutting re-arrest rates.

Veterans from any war are eligible, as long as prosecutors and defense attorneys agree to send them. If defendants are accepted to veterans court, they stand to gain a lot. Judge Hopper will tailor each program for each defendant based on their particular situation.

Judge HOPPER: In exchange for their cooperation and success in the program, they would get a better disposition in the criminal case. It may be a complete dismissal, a better kind of probation or a lesser charge.

MADOR: And defendants get medical or psychological care, housing, a job or anything else they need to stay out of trouble. Colonel Eric Ahlness with the Minnesota National Guard says the new court is a chance to make up for past mistakes.

Colonel ERIC AHLNESS (Minnesota National Guard): If you look at the Vietnam-era veterans, where nothing was done, if we do nothing then we know what the results are going to be, whereas this here provides a model that shows success.

MADOR: But advocates say it's even better to help veterans before they land in court.

(Soundbite of clapping)

At a training session in Lakeville, Minnesota, more than a dozen off-duty police officers listen as Officer James Stevens explains officers are often the first contact for a person in crisis.

Mr. JAMES STEVENS (Police Officer): You know, you pull somebody over for a headlight out, and he flips out on you, you might be like, okay, this is kind of weird.

MADOR: Stevens tells officers to look for clues a veteran might be struggling to adjust to civilian life. He gives them pamphlets on where veterans can get help. But it's not a get-out-of-jail-free card. If a veteran breaks the law, trainers say police should still make an arrest or write a ticket, like they would for anyone else.

But Officer Shawn Fitzhenry encourages them to also follow up with prosecutors.

Mr. SHAWN FITZHENRY (Police Officer): Do you throw the book at them? That's up to your discretion. However, if we can recognize that there is an issue there from overseas, you know, that's going to help evaluate where they're at and how we can get them appropriate help.

MADOR: The idea is to reach them on low-level offenses before things get more serious. The Pentagon estimates that as many as one in five of the 1.7 million veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan will suffer serious mental health problems like PTSD or depression. Studies have found only about half of these veterans have sought help, and of those who did, only about half got adequate care.

Officer Fitzhenry remembers one call that nearly ended tragically. He arrived to find a veteran outside his house pointing guns at police while his young daughter looked on.

Mr. FITZHENRY: He had two weapons pointed at us. The reason why he didn't get shot immediately is his daughter was on the front steps.

MADOR: Eventually, the man dropped his weapons and surrendered. Later, police discovered the guns weren't even loaded.

To help police avoid close calls like this, more than 90 departments across Minnesota have held veterans training sessions. Trainers say they want to avoid the mistakes that were widespread when Vietnam veterans returned from combat. Many veterans of past wars who committed crimes cycle through the criminal justice system without any special treatment.

For NPR News, I'm Jess Mador in St. Paul.

SIEGEL: Tomorrow on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, women veterans seeking help from a VA health system designed for men.

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