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Fledgling veterans court deals with 'root of the problem'

Published: Sunday, Jan. 2 2011 12:26 a.m. MST

SALT LAKE CITY — Magistrate Judge Paul Warner and the man standing in his courtroom before him talk like two old friends who haven't seen each other for awhile.

"You're looking as fit as a fiddle," the judge says to Gordon Gleason.

"I feel good, your honor," the white-haired, white-bearded man replies.

As they talk, Gleason, a 55-year-old Army veteran, says he's doing well in his drug and alcohol treatment program. His medication seems to be working, though he allows he's always had a problem with anger.

A fight over the telephone in the Veteran's Administration hospital psychiatric ward six months ago landed him before the federal judge on a simple assault charge. But Warner seems inclined to give Gleason a break provided he stays clean.

"Hopefully, we can work out something that makes some sense," Warner tells him before moving on to the next case on his monthly veterans calendar.

Warner quietly started "veterans court" in March, and it is believed to be the only one of its kind on the federal level in the nation. It is similar to longstanding mental health and drug courts that give defendants a chance to avoid jail or get reduced sentences if they adhere to specific conditions such as undergoing treatment.

Veterans courts are a recent phenomenon, popping up around the country at the state and city levels, including on a limited basis in Salt Lake City. The idea is to treat the underlying causes of criminal behavior rather than just put veterans, many of whom return from service with post traumatic stress disorder, behind bars.

"Unfortunately, we're learning that a lot of these kids come back with pretty serious issues," he said.

Amy Earle, a social worker who serves as the veterans justice outreach coordinator, said soldiers often have difficulty readjusting to life after war. "They're not quite certain how to do it," she said.

Veterans may suffer from PTSD, depression or anxiety. They self medicate with excessive drugs and alcohol. An inability to mesh with family members may lead to violence in the home. Some wind up homeless.

And they'll do something that drops them into the criminal justice system.

"By the time we get them, they are tangled balls of yarn, if you will," said Scott Hill, VA chief of mental health services in Salt Lake City. "We know that early intervention works. Sometimes the court system is the first opportunity we've had to interact with them."

Earle said the system can be "so cold" for those who have served their country. "They need and deserve these services," she said.

One of the challenges is finding out who the veterans are. They need not have gone to war to qualify as a veteran.

"If I was running for Miss America, my platform would be asking, 'Have you served in the U.S. military?' " said Earle, who coordinates treatment for veterans in federal court and Salt Lake City Justice Court.

City prosecutor Sim Gill is trying to train social service providers, law enforcement and prosecutors to ask that question. He recently expanded the criteria for the city's mental health court to include PTSD, which often nets veterans who don't know VA treatment services are available to them.

Gill, who was elected as the new Salt Lake County district attorney, hopes to carry the effort into his new job.

"The goal is to continue to expand that partnership and collaboration," he said, adding he fears there will be an increase in veterans entering the criminal justice system in the next few years.

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