SALT LAKE CITY — It’s not every day in 3rd District Court that you see defendants rise up and hug the judge.
Then again, every day isn’t graduation day in Judge Royal Hansen’s Veterans Court.
It’s been two years now since Hansen, who’s been on the state bench since being appointed in 2003 by then-Gov. Michael Leavitt, launched a specialty court open exclusively to veterans of the armed forces who find themselves on the wrong side of the law.
Believing the vets' problems are almost universally the result of addictions or mental health issues — and usually a combination of both — the judge felt the best way to help them, and still satisfy the demands of justice, was to show them a way out of the hole they’d dug themselves into, not a way further in.
His plan: offer the veterans an alternative to incarceration that involves a court-monitored commitment to report to the judge every week, stay clean and sober, see their therapists without fail, interact with mentors and course managers and regularly provide community service.
Put another way: they served us, let’s serve them.
Two years ago it was merely a theory.
Thursday on the occasion of the court’s fourth graduation day, it was hugs, tears — good tears — and, without a bailiff telling them they had to do it, a standing ovation for the judge who got it all started.
Four former servicemen — Reed Jensen, David Romero, Eli Archuleta and Lacy Black — got their diplomas. Two had their records wiped clean. Two more had felonies reduced to misdemeanors.
The happiest person in the room, apart from the graduates, was Jeff Hall of the Salt Lake County District Attorney’s office — and he stood up and agreed with the judge’s order to dismiss or reduce the charges.
“Not a great day for a prosecutor,” Hall told the court cheerfully, “but it’s an honor and privilege to be a part of the tremendous success of these men and this program.”
Unified police detective Greg Smith, one of Veterans Court’s course managers, addressed the courtroom in praise of a judge and a plan that, in addition to steering veterans back on the right path, has helped restore his hope for humanity.
“There was a time in my life when I thought no one could change; the only thing that could change someone was death, that would solve the problem,” he said.
Then the officer put his arm around Eli Archuleta, a man who two years ago was a felony waiting to happen and now is a paragon of living by the rules.
“To see what Eli has done, how he’s changed, it gives me hope,” the detective said. Turning his attention to the veterans in the courtroom watching the proceedings, he added, “You might think nothing will ever be OK again. To that, I give you Eli. Let Eli be your example. What he’s done, worked.”
Wearing the policeman’s praise like a new coat, Eli said of Veterans Court, “I never felt threatened here; this court was never a threat to me.”
That was Hansen’s intention all along.
“The conventional court system uses punishment to alter behavior,” the judge said. “This is an alternative to that.
“It’s not the easy way out. There are quicker ways to do your time and work through the system. But this is the way that will save your life.”
Of the 2.6 million soldiers who have returned from Iraq and Afghanistan over the past 14 years, the judge pointed out, half have mental and physical impairments to deal with and one-fifth of them have PTSD.
Carrying such baggage is no easy thing.
“This court is designed to give vets who have lost their way a second chance,” said the judge.
Four who took him and the system up on that second chance couldn’t wait to hug everyone in sight last Thursday and move on to the next phase of their lives.
“I love you all,” said Reed Jensen as he looked around the courtroom he has visited weekly and thanked all those who made his graduation day possible. “I hope to see you around but not here.”