Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Amy Earle, Utah federal courts' veterans justice outreach coordinator, stands outside the federal courthouse.

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.

Warner struck upon the notion for veterans court while thumbing through a magazine at the VA hospital on Foothill Drive as he waited for his father to get some medical care. His own military background also figured into his decision. He served six years active duty in the Navy and later joined the Army National Guard, retiring as a colonel.

Other than the getting approval from chief U.S. District Judge Tena Campbell, Warner hasn't obtained any special permission to hold veterans court. He just asked other judges in the federal courthouse to watch for veterans and send them his way.

Defendants span the Vietnam era to the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Most of are charged with misdemeanor crimes such as simple assault, drug possession and theft. Typically, the alleged offense has occurred on the VA campus. Veterans court is not designed for those charged with serious crimes such as murder or rape.

"We're not claiming great turnarounds, but we're seeing some differences in people's lives," Warner said.

Former servicemen in his court show him proper respect as a judge, he said. "But they really listen to me much better when they find out I'm colonel."

Hill said Warner has as special relationship with veterans who come into his court.

"We have high hopes for this because it is another way that we can deal with the root of the problem," he said. "It's diverting them to treatment rather than incarceration."

Warner, a former U.S. attorney for Utah, is a no-nonsense jurist who expects the defendants in his court toe the line. He's not one to mollycoddle even fellow servicemen.

"I believe in choices and consequences," he said. "If they want to follow through, great. If they don't, I just put them in jail."

Roger Mortensen almost got off on the wrong foot with the judge when he wasn't in court when his name was called this past week. Magistrate Judge Brooke Wells ordered him to report to veterans court as a condition of his release from jail. Not showing up could have put him back there.

Mortensen, 48, faces federal charges for being a felon in possession of a firearm. He was convicted of felony theft in the mid-1990s.

He is the same man who spent nearly five months in jail this year wrongfully accused of killing his father. During a search of Mortensen's house during the homicide investigation, detectives found seven guns hidden in his garage, according to court documents.

When Mortensen finally arrived in Warner's court, the two quickly found they had something in common: Mortensen also served in Navy. He worked as an electronics technician for eight years, earning the rank of petty officer second class.

Warner probed Mortensen's background, learning the Payson man 16 years ago suffered a broken back and neck, and a brain injury in an ATV accident that left him in a coma for a few months. "Then I woke up and they told me I was disabled," he said.

The judge learned that doctors at the VA and elsewhere have prescribed Mortensen various psychotropic drugs over the years, including anti-depressants during his time in jail this year.

Warner explained to Mortensen that he has been charged with serious gun crimes. He ordered him to undergo a mental health assessment at the VA hospital.

"We want to be fair to you, but at the same time we have to ensure everyone's safety is taken into account," the judge told him.

Mortensen will return later in January, along with Gordon Gleason and half-dozen other regulars in the fledgling veterans court. How Mortensen performs may factor into the outcome of his case, which will be heard by a judge other than Warner.

Gleason said the program has worked for him so far.

"The punishment is basically the same as you'd get in regular court, but here they check up on you more," he said. "If you show you're doing your own footwork and staying on what they tell you to do, you're OK. ... It kind of keeps me honest."